The disproportionately low number of black and Latino students admitted to Fairfax County’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology — long a subject of debate — has triggered a federal civil rights complaint.
The 17-page complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Education on Monday by the Coalition of The Silence, an advocacy group led by former county School Board member Tina Hone, and the Fairfax chapter of the NAACP.
The complaint alleges that black and Latino students, as well as students with disabilities, are being shut out of Thomas Jefferson, or TJ, long before they apply in eighth grade because of Fairfax County Public Schools’ systematic failure to identify them for gifted-education programs that begin in elementary school.
Fairfax school officials could not comment because they had not had a chance to review the complaint, said spokesman John Torre.
The school system does not have numerical targets for minority enrollment at TJ. But officials have tried in recent years to increase the number of members of underrepresented student groups at the school.
Admissions experts visit every middle school to encourage and help prospective applicants; teachers are required in their recommendation letters to explain how students would contribute to diversity at the school; and the admissions process has been tweaked several times in an effort to capture the full range of students’ abilities. Some promising minority students are tapped for math and science enrichment programs.
Even so, the admissions gap persists.
Hone said she and others decided to file the complaint partly because they felt longstanding concerns about diversity at TJ have been drowned out in recent months by a new worry: that the admissions process is failing to identify the brightest math and science students.
Advocates for gifted students have been pressing the School Board to remedy that problem by overhauling the TJ admissions process, giving more weight to applicants’ test scores and less to written essays. Hone said that change would not fix underlying issues that affect black and Latino students’ prospects.
She said she is not seeking specific remedies at this time, but instead wants to bring attention to the scope of the problem.
“The solution to the problem of the lack of diversity in TJ admissions is not necessarily a fix just to the TJ admissions process,” she said. “There has to be a fix to the pipeline that feeds into the process.”
The Education Department’s civil rights office is responsible for enforcing laws that prohibit discrimination in schools based on race, color, national origin, gender, age and disability.
The office has the power to withhold federal funds from school systems that refuse to correct civil rights violations. Now it will decide whether the allegations in Fairfax merit a full investigation.
Together, black and Latino students account for about 4 percent of the 480 students admitted to next year’s freshman class at TJ. The two groups make up 32 percent of the county’s student population.
Students with disabilities are likely similarly underrepresented, the complaint alleges, although there is not enough publicly reported data about their numbers at TJ to know for sure, the complaint says.
The majority of freshmen admitted to TJ each year come from county middle schools that house “Level IV centers,” highly sought-after programs that allow gifted and talented students to receive advanced instruction full time.
Students must qualify to receive such high-level academic services through a process of observation and testing that begins as early as kindergarten. And the proportion of black and Latino students who qualify is lower than the proportion of those groups in the overall school population.
The underrepresentation of minority children for gifted programs is not a problem confined to Fairfax, said Gary Orfield, a professor who has studied civil rights in schools and co-directs the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.
“It’s ubiquitous,” he said, “and it really does tell us something about the poverty of our concept of giftedness, because it’s so related to the concept of family income and privilege.”
Fairfax has tried to address disparities in recent years by tinkering with the way gifted students are identified, but some minorities remain underrepresented.
For example, of the 12,044 elementary- and middle-school students who qualify for Level IV, 455 are black, according to the school system’s Web site. That means black students account for 3.8 percent of the gifted-student population, compared with 10 percent of the student population overall.
Hispanic students account for 6.2 percent of gifted students but 22 percent of the entire student body.
The net effect, according to the complaint, which echoes the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that desegregated public schools, is two “separate and unequal” school systems — one that funnels students through advanced programs to TJ and one that does not.
“To allow some students access to the richness of the bounty of TJ, without trying to level the playing field for all students, seems to violate the fundamental principle of equal opportunity for all in public,” the complaint says.
The complaint also faults the TJ admissions process for putting some students at a disadvantage.
One example, the complaint says, is the “student information sheet” used to assess a teen’s motivation and commitment to math and science education. A question asks students to “Describe in detail your most important out-of-school or after-school activity or interest.”
“For many Black and Latino students, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds,” the complaint says, “their most significant after school activity may well be babysitting their younger siblings while their parents work.”
Last year, the Education Department’s civil rights division fielded more than 7,800 complaints, a spokesman said. More than 4,000 were opened for investigation.
About 2,800 of those were closed with either a finding of insufficient evidence of non-compliance or other reasons, while about 1,000 were resolved through voluntary agreements with the educational institution accused of discrimination.
An additional 200 remain under investigation.
Orfield, the UCLA professor, said U.S. education authorities have been more aggressive about pursuing allegations of civil rights violations under President Obama than they were under the previous administration.
Orfield said there’s no way to know how authorities will proceed in the Fairfax case, but he said he thought concerns about diversity at TJ deserve federal attention.
“Really great schools like TJ are huge assets for individuals and for communities, and they should be available fairly to everybody,” he said. “It’s certainly a justifiable issue to look at closely.”