UPDATE: After Policy Change, Thomas Jefferson High Makes Small Gains in Student Diversity

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Minority enrollment at Fairfax County's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology has increased only slightly under a new admissions policy intended to ensure greater diversity at the selective school.

In this year's freshman class, the first to use the new admissions procedures, 19 Hispanic students were admitted, compared with 10 the year before. Twelve black students were admitted, compared with 11 the year before. A total of 495 students were accepted.

School Board member Brad Center (Lee) said the board expected that the changes at Thomas Jefferson, a highly respected magnet school that attracts the brightest teenagers in Northern Virginia, would be gradual. He said officials are working to make sure the school's program is marketed to young minority students with an aptitude for math and science.

"The board did not expect to see a great shift," Center said. "Have we opened up the door for more people to apply and be considered? Yes."

The school system examined the impact of the policy, which was approved in September 2004, as part of a study that included a survey of high-achieving minority students and a survey of teachers at the school.

The School Board rewrote Thomas Jefferson's admissions policy because of concerns that the student body didn't reflect the community's diversity. At the time, opponents said the change could lower academic standards at the school, which is considered among the top in the nation.

The policy directs admissions officers to give grades more consideration in determining who makes the first cut instead of relying largely on a standardized test. Then, as they decide who will be offered admission, the officers read essays and teacher recommendations and consider factors such as race, ethnicity, poverty and cultural experiences.

Under the old process, applicants took a multiple-choice admissions test. Each student was given an overall rating in which the test score accounted for 80 percent and grade-point average, 20 percent. Now, grades and the test score are considered on a sliding scale. The report on the new policy showed that although the students who made the initial cut for this year's freshman class scored slightly lower on the standardized tests, the group, on average, had a slightly higher grade-point average.

"The major finding was that there was no change in the academic talent of students," said board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville).

She said the school system must focus on reaching out to the youngest minority students to help them prepare for Thomas Jefferson and other demanding academic programs.

The system also surveyed 332 high-achieving black or Hispanic students who did not apply to Thomas Jefferson. A little more than 80 percent said they didn't consider the magnet school because they didn't want to leave their friends, and 37 percent said they were worried there were not enough people who shared their ethnicity or race at the school.

The majority of students surveyed also said that they did not know about Thomas Jefferson until the seventh or eighth grade and that they would not have had enough time to prepare to apply.

-- Maria Glod

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