Admissions statistics for next fall’s incoming class at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology show continuing racial and ethnic disparity at the magnet school.
More than 66 percent of the students accepted to Thomas Jefferson are Asian, while just 10 black and eight Hispanic students were admitted out of a total of 487 applicants.
This year’s numbers continue a larger trend. In the last five years, black and Hispanic students have combined to make up no more than 4.3 percent of the total students accepted. This year, black students make up 10.3 percent and Hispanic students 23.6 percent of all students in Fairfax County public schools.
The stark contrast in the population of Thomas Jefferson compared to the county in which it is located is leading community members to look critically at the gulf between black and Hispanic students and their peers, not only in the admissions process for the prestigious school but throughout the Fairfax County school system.
The public magnet school, often referred to locally as TJ, is operated by FCPS, but accepts students from private as well as public schools and from neighboring jurisdictions in Virginia. Still, the majority of its students come from the Fairfax County public schools.
“I love Fairfax because of its diversity,” said Tina Hone, a former county School Board member. “But I want to see that become equity and equality in our schools. And that’s not what we see.”
Hone is the founder and chair of Coalition of the Silence (COTS), a community organization focused on closing the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their peers.
In July 2012, the group filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights against FCPS over the lack of diversity at TJ. The complaint, alleging discrimination against black and Hispanic students, remains under investigation by the Department of Education, according to Hone.
“There are no easy answers,” Hone said. “But what I’m not seeing from FCPS is urgency to address this problem, and that worries me.”
The school system did revamp its admissions process for the magnet school heading into this year.
The total applicant pool is narrowed to a group of semifinalists based on school grades and the results of a standardized admissions test. Semifinalists then undergo a “holistic” evaluation process, taking into account required essays and teacher recommendations as well as grades and test results. According to the new policy, the “holistic review [is] designed to identify a talented, committed and diverse student body.”
Jeremy Shugart, TJ admissions director, issued a statement when this year’s admissions statistics were released noting outreach efforts to encourage black and Hispanic students to apply.
“These aggressive outreach efforts will continue to encourage African American and Hispanic students with a passion for math and science to consider attending TJ as their high school option,” Shugart said in a statement.
Still, according to Hone, the admissions statistics expose a problem that cannot be solved simply by getting more students to apply.
“Outreach can’t just happen in eighth grade,” Hone said.
Less black and Hispanic students apply to the school, but the admissions rates for those student groups are also lower than their white and Asian peers: 23 percent of Asian applicants were accepted and 12.3 percent of white applicants were accepted, compared to 5.6 percent of black applicants and 3.7 percent of Hispanic applicants.
The achievement gap starts in the early grades, according to Hone, so by the time students apply to TJ they are already behind. Hone sees the admission statistics as a call for more robust pre-K education and better, more inclusive screening for advanced academic programs across the board.
“We’re not asking for quotas at TJ,” Hone said. “We’re not asking for any sort of lowering of standards. But we need to recognize that this is a very deeply entrenched problem in Fairfax County.”