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Posted at 05:05 AM ET, 08/14/2012

Being a minority at America’s best high school

When Anita Kinney was student body president at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, I occasionally quoted her vivid impressions of life at the most selective high school in the United States. I did not know at the time that she was a minority. When she offered a guest column on that subject, leaving more time for my vacation this week, I said fine. She can be reached at anitaskinney@gmail.com.

By Anita Kinney

Yes, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson High School For Science and Technology Had a Hispanic Student Body President With a Learning Disability

If you Google “Anita Kinney,” you’ll find a prolific cancer researcher at a Utah university. That Anita Kinney is a genius. I’ve followed her career and lived in her daunting shadow for many years. She’s always ranked higher than me in search engine results — except for my brief brush with Internet celebrity in 2006, when Jay Mathews catapulted me to the top of the “Anita Kinney” rankings by quoting me on the front page of The Post.

The story was about my fellow classmates from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) who were rejected from Ivy League schools.

In more recent news, the NAACP and an advocacy group called Coalition of The Silence (COTS) filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging that Fairfax County Public Schools is discriminating against black, Latino and disabled students through its admissions process for Thomas Jefferson.

The complaint doesn’t describe what it’s like to be a person of color at TJ, or to be a person with a disability there. Seeing so many negative comments surrounding this complaint — some of them penned by my former classmates — has forced me to time-travel back to my TJ years. I asked Jay to let me guest-blog about my experiences as one of TJ’s “twice-exceptional” students, a term referring to gifted children who also have special needs.

I am Hispanic and have a learning disability. I was far from being one of the star students in TJ’s class of 2006, and I endured many taunts from students who told me I had only been admitted to the school because I’d “played the race card.”

I’m writing this because I’d wager that most members of TJ’s admissions committee would rather admit my more conventionally successful Internet doppelganger. Why? Because that Anita Kinney’s career choices reflect the school’s apparent mission, i.e., churning out the sort of scientists whose high school internships overlap with the high-profile funding interests du jour.

Yet my peers elected me student body president and Homecoming Queen my senior year, so I hope most of them will agree that I, too, belonged at TJ — even though I’m now an English major at Portland State University, a college destination that’s not even a blip on the admission committee’s radar.

I believe it’s time for TJ to put its house, and its admissions priorities, in order. The tone of the discussion surrounding the new lawsuit more deeply entrenches a prevailing perception at TJ that existed way back when I studied there: that the school’s black and Hispanic students were merely the beneficiaries of a reverse racism, produced by lowering admissions standards, that was intended to boost the school’s racial diversity for political reasons.

The comments that users have posted on articles covering this complaint trouble me. It seems that the most popular of their objections is the notion that the NAACP and the coalition are somehow advocating for lower standards for black and Hispanic students.

I’ve carefully examined the complaint, and I believe it makes a compelling case that TJ’s current admissions procedure does not do enough to remedy educational disparities that minority students face in Fairfax County Public Schools. I hope this complaint will compel our community to discuss how TJ’s narrowing focus on supposedly objective measures of performance ultimately compromises its stated mission “to foster a culture of innovation based on ethical behavior and the shared interests of humanity.”

My biggest concern is that test scores are weighted more heavily than holistic factors in the TJ admissions process, even though there is no established correlation between these test scores and academic success. According to this line of reasoning, numerical cutoffs are the only way to ensure race blind admissions.

But there is substantial evidence that these standardized tests favor students from upper-middle-class backgrounds, and that most underrepresented minorities in Fairfax County do not fall into that socioeconomic bracket. TJ’s admissions process bears this out: It’s well documented that admissions changes made since 1998 (when the school began to rely more heavily on test scores) have generally yielded classes with fewer black and Hispanic students.

The complaint suggests that the county’s middle schools with Advanced Academic Centers serve as a de facto funnel for TJ applicants. Over half of this year’s incoming class came from just four middle schools. It asks the Department of Education to evaluate whether our existing methods of identifying gifted children (including, but not limited to, TJ’s admissions process) further enshrine this stratification of educational opportunities.

It’s important to recognize that TJ upped the GPA and test score requirements for admission to the school in 2009. Math scores are now weighted even more heavily in the selection process. The complaint reveals how this change favors students who attend middle schools that provide comprehensive math instruction.

Ostensibly, this change was to ensure that TJ would only admit students truly interested in studying mathematics at higher levels. But all the ink spilled over the school’s flagging math performance suggests that it hasn’t worked.

In 2004, a Blue Ribbon Commission convened to address TJ’s radically diminished minority enrollment as a result of the 1998 admissions changes. The commission recommended modifying the admissions process so that more students from underrepresented middle schools would be admitted. Many community members hoped that this would increase diversity at the school — and indeed, TJ’s class of 2006 was more diverse than many of the classes admitted since the next round of changes in 2009.

The complaint spells out how the commission’s recommendations to increase diversity have since been systematically undermined and disregarded. This letdown alone should be enough to raise our hackles. But the complaint is about more than race.

The coalition claims that Fairfax County Public Schools excludes many twice-exceptional students from its talented and gifted programs. I’m not surprised. While I was a student at TJ, I witnessed several classmates with learning and psychiatric disabilities pushed out by TJ administrators because the school “wasn’t a good fit.”

I was formally diagnosed with dyscalculia (a math learning disability) in my early 20s. I’ve had an attention deficit disorder diagnosis for much longer. (I did not take stimulant medication in high school due to side effects.) As a result, I truly struggled at TJ. I persevered because of supportive classmates who tutored me during lunch and free periods. I was a National Merit Semifinalist, graduated with a 3.14 GPA (yes, that’s pi) and scored the equivalent of 1510 on the old version of the SAT.

But my poor performance in math, paired with my ethnicity, made me an easy target for some students, who suggested that I had claimed to be Hispanic to reap the benefits of affirmative action. (Obviously, my classmates didn’t realize that not everyone from Latin America has dark skin.) I’m sure there are still plenty of people who believe I took a spot from someone more qualified to attend TJ. Perhaps I’m a stain on the school’s reputation because I scored a 3 (the lowest passing grade) on the AP calculus exam.

But it seems to me that the TJ community has accepted on principle that only math geniuses deserve to be at the school, and I wonder whether that makes it difficult for us to be objective about potential civil rights violations that may occur both during the admissions process and even after students are admitted.

The most dramatic example of TJ’s propensity for adopting potentially discriminatory policies was the expulsion of Matthew Nuti in 2008. When TJ sent Nuti back to his neighborhood school for his 2.8 GPA under the school’s newly adopted “3.0 rule,” many Post commenters (including some of Nuti’s classmates) preferred to call Nuti a lazy student rather than question the fairness of a policy that removes students from a public school if their grades fall below a B average.

Under this rule, students whose GPAs are at or below 3.2 are now subject to “interventions” from the school. Has the TJ community paused to consider whether such a rule might disproportionately target students with learning disabilities, or students from underrepresented middle schools whose high school coursework might be their first encounter with a challenging curriculum?

If the admissions committee has determined that a gifted child can benefit from the academic rigor that Jefferson provides, is it fair that the child should be excluded for his or her subpar academic performance? Somehow, the majority of the TJ community seems on board with these standards. The real kicker, though, was FCPS spokesman Paul Regnier’s implication that exceptions to the 3.0 rule might be considered — if the student in question was making good grades in math and science.

But what if the student with a 2.9 came from a middle school without comprehensive math instruction? What if the student had an undiagnosed learning disability? Might it be discriminatory to apply the 3.0 cutoff in these cases? Shouldn’t our community be asking these questions, instead of piling on dismissed students who have the chutzpah to enlist The Post in their defense?

Furthermore, do we really expect humanity’s shared interests to be reflected in a school whose culture systematically excludes students who aren’t neurotypical and/or don’t belong to a particular socioeconomic class? Is such behavior on TJ’s part ethical? My classmates should be alarmed that the number of minorities at our alma mater is so small, not railing against the NAACP for calling attention to an important issue.

But maybe I’m biased. I still can’t believe that anyone could possibly think I took a spot from a worthier student. Yet that’s exactly what people suggest when they claim that the NAACP and the coalition are advocating for reverse racism rather than for a return to a more holistic admissions process, like the one I was admitted under in 2002.

Sure, I’ll probably never develop cold fusion or change the Internet, and to this day I still can’t balance a chemical equation. But it’s wrong for anyone to tell me that I somehow didn’t deserve my four years at TJ simply because I’ve since made career decisions based on my personal strengths, which don’t involve working in a laboratory. If I had gone to my neighborhood high school, I probably would have had a higher GPA and qualified for more scholarships…but I’m not sure I’d be better off. The truth is that my TJ education has opened doors for me professionally that are out of reach for most English majors.

Twice-exceptional children shouldn’t have to grow up to be Albert Einstein, Bill Gates or Temple Grandin for our society to take them seriously and value their contributions. And gifted children, who for whatever reason don’t do well in traditional classrooms, shouldn’t be denied an education at the best public high school in Fairfax County.

I’m grateful that the NAACP and the Coalition of the Silence are holding Fairfax County Public Schools accountable for its policies. My hope is that this complaint will make TJ take a long, hard look at itself. These conversations are difficult, but they’re ones we need to have if the school is truly committed to fulfilling its mission, especially since the TJ I went to was not always a supportive environment for people of color or with learning disabilities.

It is perfectly fair to be skeptical that reforming TJ admissions would fix Fairfax County Public Schools’ fundamental inequities. But when critics of the complaint adopt such a defensive posture, it performs a disservice to the whole TJ community. The school’s admissions process is only the most visible symptom of a larger disease.

And while it’s unfortunate that our school has been singled out, to dismiss this complaint as another attempt to lower standards for blacks and Hispanics and to ultimately implement racial quotas makes us look short-sighted — and brings back memories of hushed whispers that one of my classmates had gotten into Harvard only because he was black.

By  |  05:05 AM ET, 08/14/2012

 
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