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At Magnet School, An Asian Plurality
Group Forms 45% Of Freshmen at Thomas Jefferson

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 7, 2008

Asian American students will outnumber white classmates for the first time in the freshman class at the region's most prestigious public magnet school this fall, a milestone reached as the number of African Americans and Hispanics has remained low and the Fairfax County School Board prepares to review the school's admission policy.

At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in the Alexandria area this year, more than 2,500 applicants vied for 485 seats. Asian American students got 219, or 45 percent of the total, while white students got 205, or 42 percent. About 38 percent of the school's students were Asian American in the past school year.

T.J., as the school is known, draws students from several Northern Virginia jurisdictions. It ranks among the nation's top public schools in some surveys because of its rigorous curriculum and high-achieving students. Its average combined SAT score in 2007 was 2155, compared with 1639 countywide. More than 150 of its students that year were semifinalists for National Merit scholarships.

A plurality of Asian American students in a high school class would be an anomaly in the Washington region, where fewer than one in 10 residents is Asian American. In Fairfax, which supplies most of the school's students, people of Asian descent account for 16 percent of the population, census data show. That percentage has doubled since 1990 and is the highest in the area.

Among the incoming T.J. freshmen is Yuqing Zhang. Born in China, Yuqing immigrated with his family a decade ago, when his parents came to the United States for graduate school. He began learning math as a toddler from his grandmother and has excelled throughout school. As an eighth-grader at Longfellow Middle School in the Falls Church area, he took geometry and a class that combines high-level algebra and trigonometry. He placed 30th in a national math competition.

Yuqing, 14, said he has heard that T.J. is very competitive but added that he looks forward to focusing on his favorite subjects, math and science. The school is appealing, he said, because it "makes you do the best," and its students "model a good work ethic."

The rising concentration of Asian Americans at T.J. mirrors demographic trends in other elite math and science magnet schools. In New York, the selective and specialized Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School have Asian American majorities, although about 10 percent of the metropolitan population is of Asian descent. In San Francisco, Asian Americans make up more than 60 percent of the students at selective Lowell High School and about a third of the city's population.

The success of Asian American students reflects the educational commitment found in many immigrant communities, particularly for second-generation students fluent in English and encouraged by upwardly mobile parents who came to the United States for higher education or professional positions.

The demographic imbalance in top public magnet schools has become a sensitive issue, however. Black and Hispanic students often are vastly under-represented. Many of the schools struggle to reflect the diversity of the wider population while maintaining a transparent admissions process with uniformly high standards.

Jenny Tsai, a recent Harvard University graduate, wrote her thesis about what she perceived as a growing sentiment that "too many Asians" were at top magnet schools. She attended the selective Hunter College High School in New York, where she sensed "a certain level of anxiety" as the portion of Asian American students in the entering class grew from less than a third to more than half between 1997 and 2003. Tsai said some students felt a need to justify their admission or their contributions.

"I don't think there was ever a question of who really belonged there until the numbers shifted," she said.

Admissions offices at top private colleges are becoming the front line for debates about equal access as the supply of high-caliber Asian American applicants swells and colleges try to maintain student diversity. Some Asian Americans contend that they face informal quotas and are forced to meet higher standards, similar to hurdles that Jewish Americans faced in the first part of the 20th century.

On the high school level, more public magnet schools are adopting objective merit-based systems as race-based policies are being overturned in courts. A Chinese American student sued the San Francisco Unified School District in the 1990s after he was rejected from Lowell High, leading to a court decision that overturned the school system's quota-based admissions. And race preferences at Boston Latin, the Massachusetts city's most prestigious school, were struck down by a federal appeals court a decade ago in a case brought by the father of a white applicant who was rejected.

The Fairfax School Board has adjusted the T.J. admissions policy over time to reflect legal decisions and changing politics. An affirmative action policy that allowed racial and ethnic variations in academic benchmarks was abandoned in the late 1990s. Afterward, admissions of black and Hispanic students plummeted. In 2001, nine black or Hispanic students were admitted, down from nearly 50 in 1994, according to the board's Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee.

In 2004, the board adopted an admissions policy that takes racial and ethnic diversity into account as a "plus factor" but not a determining factor. Unlike the approach used by Stuyvesant High and the other specialized schools in New York, which relies primarily on standardized exam results, the T.J. admissions process weighs grade-point averages on a sliding scale with test scores in an initial screening. In the second round, the selection committee considers additional factors, including teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities that demonstrate interest in science and technology, as well as students' cultural background, economic status, sex or race.

Despite those changes and a weekend enrichment program meant to help prepare promising candidates from under-represented groups, admissions of Hispanic and black students have increased only slightly. The incoming class will have 10 Hispanic and nine African American students. The School Board is scheduled to review the admissions policy this month. Whether it will alter the policy is unclear, but the issue is sure to draw close attention from many parents.

Fluctuations in the demographic profile of the incoming freshman class could be attributed in part to a new eligibility requirement that applicants take first-year algebra by eighth grade, said Judith Howard, the school's admissions director. The demographics of the incoming class may vary slightly on the first day of school because, among other variables, some applicants who recently moved to the area may be admitted.

Minority advocates and education experts say raising black and Hispanic enrollment at T.J. must be a long-term effort.

"If you have been behind the eight ball since kindergarten," an admissions policy or a middle school preparation program is not going to help much, said John Johnson, a member of the minority student oversight committee. He said parents and communities must push as soon as possible to put students on a faster academic track.

Many Asian American students in Fairfax have strong, early academic encouragement from families and communities, particularly in math and science. Many pursue extracurricular academic activities, receive private tutoring and pay for preparation courses before the T.J. entrance exam.

Another member of T.J.'s Class of 2012 will be Seiyoung Jang, 15, who moved from Seoul to Atlanta when she was 11 when her father took a job there. Her father returned to Korea a few years later, but her mother stayed so Seiyoung and her brother could continue their U.S. education.

They moved to Northern Virginia in part so Seiyoung could apply to the renowned magnet school.

"I heard T.J. was famous for education courses and high opportunities," said her mother, Mejung Kim.

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