Demographics shift at Thomas Jefferson High as Asians make up 66 percent of new class

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Thomas Jefferson High School Admissions Director Jeremy Shughart.

The demographic makeup of Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology continues to shift. More than 66 percent of the students in next fall’s incoming class are of Asian descent, with just 10 black and eight Hispanic students admitted to the magnet school’s Class of 2018.

The public school, which is open to students in Fairfax and neighboring Northern Virginia jurisdictions, received 2,900 applications for admission in the fall, the lowest number since 2009. The school accepted 487 students, an admission rate of 17 percent, akin to a selective college.

TJ’s student population has shifted significantly in the past decade as rising numbers of immigrants have moved to Northern Virginia. An overwhelming majority of those admitted now are Asian students, and the school accepted the fewest number of white students since at least 2004 — 117 this year — making up 24 percent of the class. In 2004, 54 percent of the admitted students were white and 32 percent were Asian.

Admission rates also vary considerably by race. Asian students had a 23 percent admission rate while 12 percent of white applicants and 6 percent of black applicants gained spots at the school. And this year, male students make up 60 percent of those admitted to TJ, up from 52 percent in 2005.

County school officials have faced criticism in recent years for the lack of diversity at the flagship high school, annually ranked as one of the best in the country. In 2012, the school system faced a complaint, filed with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, alleging that the school discriminates against minority and poor students.

Overall, black and Hispanic students make up about 3.5 percent of TJ’s total student population. The 10 black students admitted this year was double the number accepted last year; the eight Hispanic students admitted was a drop from the 15 who were accepted in 2013.

The school also has a tiny population of poor students, drawing criticism that the school caters only to Northern Virginia’s more affluent. This year, just four students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a federal measure of poverty, were granted admission out of 230 applicants, an acceptance rate of less than 2 percent.

Tina Hone — a past member of the Fairfax County School Board and founder of the Coalition of the Silence, an advocacy group — said she found the admissions statistics unsettling.

“Black and Latino students, who together make up more than a third of the [Fairfax County] student body, must be given the same opportunity to share in the full bounty of the Fairfax County public school system,” said Hone, who filed the complaint with the Education Department. “We see the divisions in FCPS becoming more and more entrenched along racial and ethnic lines, with one set of schools and programs for white and Asian students and another set for black and Latino students. This cannot be allowed to continue.”

TJ Admissions Director Jeremy Shughart said in a statement that the school has made efforts to reach out to minority students with a passion for math and science to apply. Shughart said school officials are encouraged by the increase in the number of black students and noted that the school system is committed to diversity at TJ.

“We recognize there is more work to be done, and we will review all of the K-12 outreach efforts in the interest of continuous improvement,” Shughart said.

George Becerra, chair of Fairfax’s Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee, said that the number of black and Hispanic applicants has dropped precipitously in recent years despite those outreach efforts. The number of black and Hispanic applicants to TJ has dropped by 25 percent since a five-year high in 2012.

This year marked the first time since 2009 that more than 480 students were admitted to the freshman class. School spokesman John Torre said that the regulations regarding admission to TJ allow for “approximately 480 students to be accepted.”

“In the past, a numeric system was used to rank students,” Torre said. “The new holistic evaluation process identified 487 students that the evaluators believe deserve admission offers.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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