The number of African American and Hispanic students being offered admission to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in September has more than tripled from a year ago, from nine students to 30, according to statistics released yesterday. Fairfax County school officials attributed the increase to last fall's well-publicized debate over the school's dearth of minorities.
Officials mailed letters of acceptance last week to 449 eighth-graders across Northern Virginia for what could be the largest freshman class ever at Jefferson, a regional magnet school in the Alexandria section of Fairfax.
"We're very excited to hear this, and we think this is a step in the right direction," said Luis Fierro, a Jefferson parent who co-chairs the diversity committee of the school's PTSA. "But these . . . groups are still underrepresented because they make up 25 percent of all eighth-graders.
Admission to Jefferson is as competitive as it is for an Ivy League university. Students must take a multiple-choice test and submit grades, teacher recommendations, a list of extracurricular activities and an essay. An estimated 800 semifinalists are selected from test results and grades, and 15 members of the admissions committee read each application before the finalists are offered admission.
This year, a record 3,000 students from Arlington, Loudoun, Prince William, Fauquier and Fairfax counties and Falls Church applied.
Ten African Americans and 20 Hispanic students have been admitted to Jefferson's Class of 2006. The current freshman class -- the Class of 2005 -- has two blacks and seven Latino students.
Jefferson Principal Elizabeth Lodal and Fairfax Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech are among those officials who have decried the lack of minorities at Jefferson, ranked among the nation's best public high schools.
In recent months, several changes have been made in Jefferson's admissions process. For starters, officials gave every applicant a 16-page booklet of sample test questions and test-taking tips. The school's PTSA diversity committee held a reception for all minority applicants and organized two test-prep courses for them. Another such course was devised and run by Jefferson student Maria Bose at her alma mater, Glasgow Middle School. Glasgow, in Fairfax's Alexandria section, has a high number of students who are not fluent in English. This year, six of Glasgow's 13 applicants were accepted to Jefferson.
Domenech said he was pleasantly surprised by the increase in minority admissions, which he credited to increased publicity about the school and the public outcry for more blacks and Hispanics to enroll.
"Sometimes issues need to be aired and be debated," he said.
Not all minorities are in short supply at Jefferson: 130 Asians were offered admission last week. No Native Americans were, however.
Next year, the school district will offer a test-prep course for about 225 students, and several School Board members have said they hope preference will be given to students from Fairfax middle schools that don't typically send many students to Jefferson.
Officials expanded the freshman class for September and have offered admission to 29 students from these underrepresented middle schools. One of those students is black, none is Hispanic.
While the statistics are an improvement, some said more has to be done to encourage minority students to apply and to prepare them for the competitive admissions process.
"It's not good enough for me," said School Board Vice Chairman Isis Castro (Mount Vernon). "Do they represent the same percentage of students who attend our schools? . . . There is a long way to go."