A local minority-advocacy group and the NAACP have jointly filed a complaint against Fairfax County Public Schools for discrimination, which they say is highlighted in the lack of diversity shown among those students admitted to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
The complaint, which was filed Monday with the U.S. Department of Education, was co-signed by the Coalition of The Silence and the Fairfax County Branch of the NAACP.
The complaint says although black, Hispanic and students with disabilities represent about one-third of the school system’s population, “for decades, these students have been grossly and disproportionately underrepresented in admission to the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.”
TJ admits 480 rising eighth-graders each year. Although 22 percent of the system’s student body is Hispanic, only 2.7 percent (or 13 students) admitted to TJ were Hispanic. Similarly, about 10 percent of students enrolled in the school system are African-American, but 1.5 percent (or seven students) of those admitted to TJ were black.
According to the admissions numbers released in April on the Class of 2016, the most recent class admitted, 64.2 percent (308 students) are Asian and 26.3 percent (126 students) are white.
This imbalance is a result of disparities in the quality of schools and programs offered within the school system, according to the discrimination complaint.
“[It] is not just the admissions process that is broken; it is the pipeline that feeds into the process,” said Charisse Espy Glassman, education chair of the Fairfax County NAACP. “We must invest in K-3rd [grade, early] education, which helps us to not only identify underrepresented gifted children but to make sure they receive all the services that they should have. We must also look at the twice exceptional children who fall through the cracks.”
The complaint against the school system says the current disparities in the number of black and Hispanic students raise legitimate claims under the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s Title VI, which prohibits exclusion from participation and discrimination on the grounds of race, color or national origin for federally-assisted programs. Public schools receive federal funds for programs such as the free and reduced-priced meals program.
School officials said they would not comment on the complaint at this time.
During a School Board work session on July 19, school system staff presented School Board members with a detailed description of TJ’s past and present admissions process, as well as recent outreach efforts toward underrepresented communities.
“We have developed a targeted outreach plan for students and parents. … The outreach effort includes elementary school students, PTAs, social networks…” said Tanisha Holland, TJ director of admissions. “I believe it is due to our outreach efforts that we have been able to increase the number of our African American and Hispanic applicants by 28 percent.”
About 3,300 students apply to TJ each year. School staff looked at the semifinalist pool of about 1,500 applicants, running models to see if different factors could impact the under-represented populations, said Terri Breeden, assistant superintendent for professional learning and accountability.
Models included weighing different parts of the application — the essays, math assessment test and teacher recommendations — lighter or heavier, conducting a lottery or looking at ZIP codes specifically. However, Breeden said none of these models significantly impacted the number of black and Hispanic students gaining admission.
While the presentation on TJ focused on diversity issues at the school, School Board members’ discussion largely focused on the increase in remedial math needs at the school.
“I was surprised about that. It was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Tina Hone, founder of the Coalition of The Silence and a former School Board member. “We had hoped that the School Board discussion would yield some plan [for addressing diversity issues].”
Hone said although Coalition of The Silence members had been considering filing a complaint before, this discussion confirmed their decision. Although the U.S. Department of Education is not required to act on the complaint, Hone said she hopes it will reflect how serious the community sees the issue of diversity at TJ.
Glassman said the recent admissions data from TJ should be proof of diversity issues at TJ long argued by the community.
“This academic year, seven out of 480 students admitted to TJ will be black and 13 out of 480 will be Hispanic American. This is not diversity in our public schools,” she said. “We need drastic changes and we need them now.”