Michael Wattendorf, 17, is concerned about the lack of diversity at his school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
Thomas Jefferson, which serves as Northern Virginia’s selective magnet school, is known for its scholastic excellence and has been named the nation’s best public high school by U.S. News & World Report during all five years the publication has published the ranking.
Thomas Jefferson, however, is not known for its diversity, a concern for which it has received criticism for years.
Of the 1,800 students enrolled at TJ during the 2010-11 school year — the most recently available numbers — 906 were Asian; 787 were white; 42 were Hispanic; and 34 were black, according to the Fairfax County Public Schools system.
The lack of black students at Thomas Jefferson is not just about the students who are accepted after the rigorous application process, which includes an exam and letters of recommendation, but also about the lack of black students who apply, said Wattendorf, a senior.
“We certainly want to promote diversity at TJ. … There are blacks and Hispanics who have the aptitude to come to TJ, but there is a flaw in the outreach,” he said.
With the goal of aiding outreach to students who are underrepresented at TJ, Wattendorf founded TJinspire, a mentoring program led by the high school’s Black Student Union. Under the initiative, Wattendorf and his fellow Black Student Union members visit neighboring elementary schools such as Springfield Estates (where Wattendorf attended elementary school), Rose Hill and Franconia.
“We believe these students have the capability, but they haven’t been inspired by their teachers,” Wattendorf said.
By interacting with TJ students, he said he hopes the elementary school students see there is more to TJ and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics classes than the nerd factor.
“They get to see something that kids don’t normally see from TJ. We’re not all nerds,” said Wattendorf, who captains his school’s cross country and track teams. “We do things like air-powered vehicles [cars with sails], small hovercrafts. We launch rockets — kind of the fun side of science.”
Wattendorf’s TJinspire project recently gained him recognition as the 2012 winner Princeton Prize in Race Relations for the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region. The prize includes a $1,000 check and an invitation to participate in the Princeton Prize Symposium on Race later this month. The contest is designed to increase awareness and education on racial issues by recognizing students who have led efforts in their schools to promote diversity issues and harmony.
“Michael takes action. It might sound like a cliché, but it is true: He is a great leader,” said Russian teacher Betsy Sandstrom. “Michael saw a hard-working group [the Black Student Union] with an interest in helping the community. Above all, that is what appeals to Michael. He has received much from his own community and wants to contribute in turn as much as he can.”
Wattendorf said his TJinspire efforts also are one of the reasons he was elected the first white president of TJ’s Black Student Union.
“I think it’s a reflection of BSU being open to white and black students. Black and white students elected me,” he said.
However, some community leaders and activists say a white student leading a black student organization is further proof of TJ’s lack of diversity.
“I think this young man is special. I think it takes some courage to lead, knowing that this would cause some controversy,” said former School Board member Tina Hone, who founded the Coalition of the Silence.
The advocacy group was founded this past winter with the goal of representing the needs of minority, low-income and disabled students in the school system. Hone, who was the lone black School Board member under the last board, said black and Latino students often are underrepresented in upper-level classes offered within the school system.
“I’m troubled by the Black Student Union being led by a white student. There is an issue of authenticity of leadership in knowing the struggles [first hand of an ethnic, religious or racial group]. I don’t think a straight person should lead an [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender] group or that a Christian should lead a Jewish group.”
Hone said concerns about low black and Hispanic enrollment at TJ have been discussed for decades, and still there has been no noticeable change in enrollment numbers.
“The community has become impatient with this,” she said. “Whether FCPS wants to admit it or not, FCPS start tracking students in second grade,” which is the year the Gifted and Talented tests are given to children to identify those who could receive advanced course access. “That impacts the long-term viability and access to the pipeline to get these kids into programs like TJ.”
In addition to recruiting students earlier for programs such as TJ, Hone said the school system should reach out to more elementary and middle schools to give parents, teachers and students a better understanding of the mechanics of applying and being accepted to TJ.
Because of its high profile, Thomas Jefferson often has been used as an example of the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and Asian and white students.
“I do think that TJ is emblematic of a much larger issue,” Hone said, adding there are distortions in enrollments in Advanced Placement classes, as well as International Baccalaureate courses.
Within the public school system’s administration, increasing outreach and enrollment of black and Hispanic students into TJ is an annual discussion. Letters of acceptance into TJ were mailed to students who applied to the school in late March. Last year, about 3,310 rising freshman applied for the school’s 480 seats in that class.
During a 2010 School Board meeting, TJ Admissions Director Tanisha Holland said that, overall, blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented throughout the admissions process, including within the school’s application pool. Holland said the effort to increase minority representation at the school should include seeking out talent at an earlier age.
"We have to plant the seeds ... and for us planting the seeds means starting early," Holland said at that meeting.
Wattendorf said the goal here is the same as the goal of TJinspire and the Black Student Union.
After serving on a student-led outreach panel that met for a TJ open house, Wattendorf said he was disappointed and kind of shocked at the attitudes some student guidance staff had toward TJ.
“The counselors had this attitude that they didn’t really need to be there [at the open house] because their kids weren’t going to get in anyway,” he said. “[TJ] is something that I think is such an amazing opportunity.”