Rejected by America’s best high school

April 27, 2011

I remember how frightened I was when my California college failed to send my freshman-year grades to the Massachusetts college I wanted to transfer to. It was late in the application process. Had I blown it?

This was long ago when it was not unusual for a 19-year-old, me, to have never placed a phone call beyond the borders of his home state. I took a breath, called the East Coast and was told I still had time.

That is why I am puzzled by the story of a Fairfax County eighth-grader being shut out of a chance to go to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology because one of his recommendation letters was a day late.

Jefferson has become the most selective high school in America, as indicated by the average SAT scores of its students. That’s not such a good thing. We Americans, even the 13- and 14-year-olds, get overexcited when playing long odds at the racetrack, in the lottery, and applying to the schools most likely to reject us.

Julie Kim, mother of the Kilmer Middle School student shut out by the one-day-late recommendation, told me her son was not informed by Jefferson, or by Kilmer’s Jefferson liaison staffer, that the letter had not arrived until a day after the Feb. 21 deadline. The teacher, who had not received the form that had the deadline, wrote the letter as soon as he was told, but Jefferson officials said it was too late.

Why is that? Add that question to the many mysteries of the Jefferson admissions system.

“We go by the rules and we have the same rules for everybody,” said Fairfax schools spokesman Paul Regnier in response to a query about the Kilmore student.

I include the Kim story to a growing file of complaints about Jefferson admissions. The file includes a letter from Eugene Huang, a math teacher at Longfellow Middle School, mystified that his best student — an eighth-grader acing an algebra 2/trigonometry course — was rejected by Jefferson while dozens of other students from her school were accepted.

The students and their parents appear to be upset by these rejections. I don’t think they should be. There is no evidence that admission to Jefferson makes any difference in a student’s chances of a productive life in math and science. Fairfax students and teachers are so strong that it often seems as though the county has 24 Jeffersons, not one.

So why can’t one of the nation’s most celebrated high schools provide a little slack for innocent mishaps? There was no hurry. Jefferson admissions reviewers had not even held their training session yet. Kim’s son already had passed the first cut for semifinalists.

I know: Rules are rules. Give a break to one kid, and everyone will demand one. With only 15 percent of applicants admitted to Jefferson, he might still have been rejected.

Many parents and teachers in Fairfax County think Jefferson’s admissions system has gone astray. They say it is admitting students more for their pleasing essays and less for their grasp of and devotion to science and math. Huang says Jefferson has rejected one of Virginia’s top four middle-school math students, who form the team that goes to the national Mathcounts competition, in three of the last five years. One of them, however, got in the following year as a sophomore.

Jefferson might open that safety valve a little wider. I eventually got into the East Coast college my sophomore year. When you are a little older, you have a better idea of why you want to attend one school rather than another. You do better.

Very selective schools often become as panicked as their applicants and fear that they will lose control if they depart an iota from past practice. But why not try it anyway, as a scientific experiment? That is the core of Jefferson’s values. Give it a try.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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