Thomas Jefferson High School Students tour the US Department of Agriculture; Photo by Bob Nichols via Flickr Creative Commons
A decades-long debate over a prestigious Northern Virginia high school’s lack of diversity has caught now the attention of the whole state. The school is majority White and Asian, with Asian students making up 70 percent of the student body.
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, more commonly known as “TJ,” has been ranked the number one public high school in the country three times. The high school has a 99.8% graduation rate and the also boasts the highest safety report in the county. It has an acceptance rate of 17 percent, according to The Washingtonian.
Located in the city of Alexandria in Fairfax County, Thomas Jefferson High accepts students from six Northern Virginia school districts. But the school is so prestigious that families have moved from other cities, counties, and countries just to enroll their children.
Recently scrutiny over the lack of diversity amongst the high school’s student body has increased. According to Fox 5, 31 of the school’s 1,809 students are African American, which is fewer than two percent.
Critics say the school should work harder to ensure that the student body reflects the Fairfax county community. According to Fairfax County Public School’s district website, 34% of students are Hispanic; 32% are White, 21% are Asian; and 8% are Black. The overall makeup of the city of Alexandria is 52.2% White, 22.8% African American, 16.6% Latino and 6.5% Asian, according to 2019 population estimates from US Census QuickFacts.
Some critics believe TJ should reform their admissions systems and intensive requirements to increase African American and Latino student enrollment. Washingtonian‘s article highlights the school’s extremely competitive, 3-step admissions process:
The school examines an applicant’s GPA and entrance exam scores in the first round. The scores come from TJ’s own entrance exam.
Ambitious students have even been known to attend after-school academies to prepare for TJ’s intensive entrance exam. Structured like Korean “cram” schools, these extra classes meet throughout the week, during weekends, and throughout the summer. Some of these students begin studying as early as third grade.
Applicants’ GPAs and entrance exam scores “determine whether [they] submit essays, resumes, and teacher recommendations in the second round. A committee then scrutinizes the submissions for evidence of STEM aptitude, intellectual passion, and any background or skills that will promote ‘diversity in the student body.’ But in the first disqualifying round, decisions are numbers-driven and gender-, race-, and income-blind.”
Since its founding in 1985, the school has had a student body that is majority White and Asian. White and Asian students made up more than 90% of the population within a few years of the school’s opening, according to The Washingtonian.
Scrutiny over the school’s lack of diversity isn’t new either. In 1990, the school board launched a program called Visions to increase diversity and prepare minority middle school students for TJ’s intense curriculum. With this program, the number of African American and Latino students rose to 9.4%. But a 1997 federal court ruling indirectly caused school board members to end Visions. By the year 2000, only 98 African American and Latino students attended TJ.
In 2004, TJ hired experts to help them solve their diversity problem. This investigation found the school’s numbers-based admissions system in the first round put African American and Latino students at a disadvantage. They proposed switching the order of admissions: looking at essays and teacher recommendations in the first round instead.
The switch was met with backlash by critics who worried that it would hurt Asian students who might not be proficient in English, according to The Washingtonian. Months later, the proposal was dropped.
Fox 5 reports that the Fairfax County School Board’s latest solution is to create a merit-based lottery system. Students who meet certain qualifications like an algebra background and a 3.5 GPA to be entered into the lottery, CT Post reports.
Opponents of the change say the new system would dilute the quality of education at TJ, according to CT Post. Some have also called the changes as anti-Asian because Asian American students would likely see diminished representation under the merit-based lottery system.
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