His interest in the club grew more serious when he was asked to speak to counselors from Fairfax middle schools with low TJ acceptance rates. He did not sense that they were excited about TJ or that they were going to encourage their students to apply.
“I think the admission of a diverse population will come if you have a diverse population applying,” Wattendorf said.
Then, after reading a Washington Post article about TJ’s continuing dearth of black and Hispanic students, Wattendorf and other club members hatched an idea to launch a mentorship program for three high-minority elementary schools that do not typically send large numbers of students to TJ: Franconia, Rose Hill and Springfield Estates.
By the end of his junior year, Wattendorf — who is weighing admissions offers from Princeton, Harvard and the University of Virginia — decided to run for club president. It was not until after he had won that he told his parents about his new position.
“I don’t remember it being that big of a deal,” said his father, Daniel Wattendorf, 42, a geneticist at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Alexandria Sutton, an African American club member who also ran, said her relatives and friends were taken aback that she had lost.
“They were more like, ‘Really? How is that possible?’ ” recalled Sutton, 17, who is considering going to Spelman College, a prestigious, historically black college for women in Atlanta, next year. “I don’t think they realized that a non-black person was so invested in the club to be president.”
She has no problem with Wattendorf leading the group. To her, he could help lure more members and make the club even stronger. After all, many civil rights and minority advocacy groups have long included white members.
“People would realize you don’t have to be black to join,” she said. “But the fact that there are so few minorities at TJ to begin with, it does make sense that there could be a white president.”
The demographic disparities at TJ exist at other highly selective magnet schools around the country. At Stuyvesant High School in New York, for example, there are only 40 black and 80 Hispanic students out of nearly 3,300, according to the school’s figures.
Evan Glazer, TJ’s principal, said the school is doing all it can to increase African American and Hispanic enrollment, including expanding its outreach and mentoring programs at elementary and middle schools across Fairfax that do not feed large numbers of students into TJ.
Despite their small numbers, black students seem comfortable at TJ, said Haywood Torrence, an African American government teacher who is the Black Student Union’s sponsor. Only occasionally, he said, does he hear complaints about racial slights or tensions.
“Some of [the black students] have described to me things that have made them feel as if perhaps some of their peers did not feel they fully belong here,” said Torrence, who was one of the first blacks in the 1960s to integrate his own high school in southern Virginia before graduating from the Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard.
Sometimes in their weekly meetings, the club members tackle complex issues that deal with race and cultivate nuanced opinions about often-murky events. At one recent meeting, talk turned to the case of Florida 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed in February by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood crime-watch volunteer. Zimmerman says he acted in self-defense.
“I think it’s really sad that people are trying to discredit Trayvon Martin’s name,” Marcus Prater, 17, an African American junior, told the club. “People are saying he was a bad kid and it was coming his way, but there’s no impromptu homicide that was warranted.”
Seated at the front of the classroom, Wattendorf sounded a note of caution.
“I understand what you’re saying,” he said. “But to offer the alternative opinion . . . if there was a chance he was beating Zimmerman, that is important to know.”
After the meeting, Prater said in an interview that Wattendorf is not always going to share the same perspective as the African American members of the club.
“He’s done an amazing job as president. He was the best person who ran,” Prater said. “But I don’t think he understands that Trayvon Martin could have been me. I think Michael knows [the case] is awful, but when you feel like you could be in the same shoes, that you could die and people would defend your killer, well, you have a completely different viewpoint.”