THE EDUCATION REVIEW | Secondary Education

The Quest

By Tyler Currie
Sunday, August 7, 2005

The eighth-graders were razor sharp, slicing through logic problems with astonishing ease.

Problem 26: Five students are seated at a round table, facing the table. Howard is next to Tina and on her right. Jeff is next to Beth and on her right. Melinda is not sitting next to Beth. What is the seating arrangement, starting with Melinda and going to her left?

Many of the 20 or so students sitting in a classroom at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology chose the right answer in a matter of seconds: Melinda, Jeff, Beth, Howard, Tina.

"Have you been studying logic problems?" a 13-year-old girl in a pink corduroy jacket was asked after instantly choosing the correct sequence for a similar problem.

"No, I just like doing them," she said. "They just come easily."

Her mostly Hispanic and African American classmates appeared equally relaxed and confident on this sunny Saturday afternoon in October, despite the daunting goal they'd set for themselves. They were among the nearly 3,000 students from all over Northern Virginia trying to gain admission to Thomas Jefferson, a mecca for smart kids that many argue is the best public high school in the country.

The admissions process at TJ, as everyone calls the regional magnet school, has always been extremely competitive -- and controversial. White and Asian students dominated TJ's hallways for two decades. Few black and Hispanic students made the cut, and their numbers dropped precipitously in recent years. Now an effort is underway to reverse that trend and make TJ's student body more diverse. Race and ethnicity, the Fairfax County School Board declared last fall, would be among the factors weighed in selecting the fall 2005 freshman class.

The new policy was designed to boost the prospects of students such as Miguel Bustamante, a soft-spoken 13-year-old from Springfield with gelled hair and a waning Bolivian accent. Miguel was dead set on getting into TJ, which is why he'd given up a chunk of his Saturday afternoons last fall to take this 10-week test-prep course sponsored by the Parent, Teacher and Student Association's Diversity Committee. The course was aimed at preparing promising African American and Hispanic students for TJ's difficult entrance exam.

Miguel and the others plowed through an hour's worth of logic and math problems before they got restless.

"Is it time for a break yet?" someone asked.

Yeah, chirped a chorus of voices.

"This is not a democracy," replied Haywood Torrence, who teaches social studies at TJ and is the school's only black teacher. "This is a dictatorship, and I dictate when we take a break."

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