TJ, as the prestigious magnet school is known, has long struggled to boost its African American and Hispanic enrollment. Of the 1,800 students who attended TJ last year, only 34 were black and 42 were Hispanic, school figures show. The overwhelming majority of their classmates were Asian (906) and white (787).
To some, a white student at the helm of a club for black kids is a symptom of the school’s lack of diversity.
“If you have a black-student union and the person who is over it is white . . . what does that say? The pool [of black students] is not that large there,” said Charisse Glassman, who chairs the Fairfax County NAACP’s education committee and has met with TJ officials to discuss ways to increase minority enrollment. “A white person cannot understand what black children are going though when they go to that school.”
To others, Wattendorf’s presidency is a symbol of something more high-minded about the school: Its black students were willing to look beyond race.
“It’s a great reflection on the people who voted for me. They didn’t let race be a factor in their voting — they voted on the merits of my ideas,” said Wattendorf, 17, who spearheaded a mentoring program for elementary schools in Fairfax with high minority populations and just won the Princeton Prize in Race Relations.
The prize, given to more than two dozen high-schoolers nationwide by Princeton’s local alumni committees, recognizes efforts by young people to improve racial harmony and carries with it a $1,000 award. Wattendorf said he plans to give the money to his club, which has about 15 members who show up regularly.
For Howard Small, a 17-year-old African American junior who is a member of the club, Wattendorf’s victory was initially jarring.
“It was weird and difficult to accept. We’ve had other white members and [non-blacks], but having a white person as a our leader? I didn’t know how to feel about it,” said Small, who did not vote for Wattendorf.
But Small said he has come around. It was Wattendorf’s idea, Small said, to invite the elementary-schoolers in the mentoring program to the school’s talent show. And the club’s new leader has missed meetings only for college visits.
“He’s been really good as president,” Small said. “We’re all okay with it now.”
Chantelle Ekanem, 17, a black senior and a former Black Student Union president who also ran for club president in the most recent election, said that after Wattendorf was elected, one of her girlfriends cracked a joke about him being white.
“It was an honest reaction,” Ekanem said. “People were just like, ‘That’s kind of odd.’ ”
But Ekanem said Wattendorf is devoted to the club and to increasing diversity at their school.