Fairfax County Public School Superintendent Scott Braband proposed on September 15th that the nationally-ranked Thomas Jefferson High School is considering altering the admissions process with the hopes of increasing student body diversity.
The school wants to improve racial diversity as well as socioeconomic diversity. The school listed the percentages of different ethnicities which made up the TJHS 2019-2020 school year in
their official demographic report on their website. It found that 71.5% of students were Asian, 1.72% of students were Black, 2.6% of students were Hispanic, 19.48% were white, and 4.7% were listed as 'Other'. TJHS has the lowest percentage of students who qualify for free lunch of all FCPS high schools, at 2.3%, whereas the average percentage across all twenty-four is 32%.
Superintendent Braband's proposal would revise the process in three ways. The assessment percentile ranking, application fee (currently $100), problem-solving essay, and teacher recommendation letters would no longer be required. But the proposal generating the most controversy is the proposal of a merit lottery.
The merit lottery process would involve qualified students being placed into one of five different pathways (Arlington, Fairfax, Falls Church, Loudoun, and Prince William County). There would be a designated number of spots for each pathway. A student qualifies to be put in a pathway by having a 3.5 or greater GPA, living in the county, and filling out a student information sheet which includes a questionnaire and essay.
“We believe there has been over-reliance upon the current admissions test, which tends to reflect upon the socioeconomic background of test-takers or the ability for students to obtain private test preparation instead of students’ true academic potential. This can discourage potential candidates from applying or advancing to the pool of semifinalists.”
Equitable admissions at TJHS is one of the cornerstones of the Thomas Jefferson Alumni Action Group (TJAAG). Before the superintendent's proposal of the merit lottery, the TJAAG had been working on creating a recommendation to the school board on how to create more equity in the admissions process.
According to Vice President of the TJAAG, Dr. Andrew Hayes, "Everyone [in the TJAAG] was surprised by Superintendent Braband, and since then the committee has shifted gears to supporting the parts of the plans that we like most. We couldn't believe how much of our own preferences were included. We have only a few amendments. We're generating research to support Dr. Braband's proposal and a couple of things that we would like to change."
Another group in support of the merit lottery is the Fairfax chapter of the NAACP. The chapter laid out nine different educational advocacy goals, which ranged from concerns about COVID-19 to teacher hiring practices.
Sujatha Hampton, Education Chair of the Fairfax NAACP says that the organization TJHS was last on its list of educational advocacy priorities, and were more concerned with the conditions that lead up to a student attending an elite school like TJ. "TJ is the last step throughout a child's journey at FCPS. There are disproportionate realities from the moment a child is born, from the time some children get pre k and some don't. Then there's AAP, which has a lot of problems. So, it was last on our list, because there are so many things that got us here. But then, because the state was taking a look at TJ, at governor's schools, it got bumped up to the top."
Many members of the TJ community are staunchly opposed to the proposal.
Some parents have formed a group they've entitled the Coalition for TJ. Their website states "We are parents, students and community members advocating for diversity and excellence at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. We support increasing diversity through merit-based admissions to TJ."
According to Coalition supporter and TJ parent Greg Miller, the Coalition formed when "a letter was sent home indicating there were renewed efforts to look at TJ's admissions process. What caused a lot of parents to organize was that these meetings were being held in secret, and were not open to the public."
Miller states that there are several problems with the merit lottery. One such problem is that the top applicants in STEM fields might not get in. Furthermore, Miller states (and the Coalition posits) that the merit lottery will "do nothing to increase the number of underprivileged students".
The Coalition for TJ has outlined an alternative idea for diversifying admissions rates, entitled the Second Look Program.
"For middle schools with three or fewer semifinalists (underepresented schools)˳ the principals and staff of those schools will have the opportunity to name a sufficient number of SecondLook Semifinalists to bring the number of semifinalists from each middle school to five." (Coalition for TJ Website)
In addition to the parents who have spoken out against the proposal, current TJ students have written a letter to the superintendent that both urges the board to reconsider the merit lottery and poses their own solutions. Like the parent groups, they are concerned that the quality of education at TJ will decrease.
According to one student, "Currently, TJ has a whole host of super high-level classes. These students tend to come from certain middle schools that offer courses in these programs. By setting a quota that only allowed 10 or so students [from a given middle school] to go, you'll be taking away the specialized classes. You [will have to] create more remedial math classes. To some, that might not be bad, but to me, that is lowering the quality of education. Because you’re taking away opportunities from those at the very top. You’re distributing resources...leaving unused resources. That is lowering the quality of education."
The vote will take place on October 8th, at which point the board will have to send a report on its diversity status and goals to the governor. If the proposal passes, it will take effect immediately. The proposal in its entirety can be read at: https://go.boarddocs.com/vsba/fairfax/Board.nsf/files/BTGKX652F413/$file/TJHSST%20Admissions%20Merit%20Lottery%20Proposal.pdf