The student population at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Fairfax County’s elite magnet school, has seen a significant demographic shift in the past five years, as Asian students have dominated the applicant pool.
Since 2009, the number of Asian students admitted to Thomas Jefferson has risen 21 percent, while the number of white students admitted fell 29 percent. The number of accepted black students — historically underrepresented at the school — also dropped into the single digits despite numerous school system attempts in recent years to address the disparity.
“We are deeply disappointed that there was no meaningful change,” said Tina Hone, a former Fairfax County School Board member and founder of the Coalition of the Silence, an advocacy group for underrepresented students. Last year, Hone filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging that the Fairfax County school system is systematically failing to identify black, Hispanic and disabled students for gifted education programs. The Department of Education investigation is ongoing.
This year, 3,121 students applied, and the school system admitted 480 students to the school, which focuses its curriculum on math and science. The overall acceptance rate was about 15 percent.
But for Asian students, the acceptance rate was closer to 22 percent. For white students, it was 11 percent, and for Hispanic students it was 5.9 percent. Black students were admitted at a rate of 2.9 percent, with just five black students accepted to the school.
Tanisha Holland, the central-office based director of admissions for Thomas Jefferson, said the administration wants to address racial disparity at the school.
“We are continuing to do aggressive outreach efforts to spread the word and promote (science, technology, engineering and math) among black and Hispanic students,” Holland said.
Holland said a higher number of black and Hispanic students made it to the semifinal round in the admissions process this year, which she said demonstrates that minorities are competing for spots at TJ, as the school is known.
Next fall’s admitted freshman class has 317 students of Asian heritage, or about 66 percent of the class, and 123 white students, about 25 percent. The five black students represent 1 percent of the admitted class of 2017. The class composition is significantly different than it was in 2009, when Asians represented 54 percent of the freshmen and whites made up about 36 percent of the class. The proportions of black and Hispanic students, however, remain about the same.
Currently, Asian students make up about 54 percent of Thomas Jefferson students overall, with white students at 39 percent, Hispanic students at 2 percent and black students at 1.6 percent. Throughout Fairfax County, Asians account for 19 percent of all students, meaning they are significantly overrepresented at the county’s best school. Black students make up 10 percent of the school system and are significantly underrepresented at TJ. White students make up 43 percent of the county’s students; Hispanic students represent 19 percent of the student population.
Thomas Jefferson also has few students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, a measure of poverty. Students who receive such meals are one of the fastest growing segments of the student population in Fairfax County and now make up 26 percent of the student population. TJ had 314 such students apply for admission this year, and just five were admitted, a rate of about 1.6 percent.
Hone said Fairfax fails to prepare black and Hispanic elementary and middle school students to successfully compete with their peers for admission, leading TJ to become a “segregated school,” she said.
“Fairfax County claims to be one of the greatest school systems in the country, but it can’t take a child in kindergarten who happens to be Latino or black or poor and prepare them to be ready for TJ,” Hone said.