Black, Hispanic students dwindle at elite Va. public school

Years of efforts to raise black and Hispanic enrollment at the regional school in Fairfax County have failed.
By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 6:49 PM

When the Black Students Association at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology threw a pizza party in September for new members, every African American freshman on campus showed up.

All four of them.

They amount to less than 1 percent of the Class of 2014 at the selective public school in Fairfax County, regarded as among the nation's best. "It's disappointing," said Andrea Smith, the club's faculty sponsor. "But you work with what you got."

The count of Hispanic freshmen is not much higher: 13.

Years of efforts to raise black and Hispanic enrollment at the regional school have failed, officials acknowledge. The number of such students admitted has fallen since 2005.

There are two major reasons. Admissions decisions are generally made without regard to race or ethnicity, despite a policy meant to promote diversity. And initiatives to enlarge the pipeline of qualified black and Hispanic students in elementary and middle school have flopped.

"We need to do a better job of evening the playing field," said Richard Moniuszko, deputy superintendent in Fairfax County. "But there's a limit to what we can do, both legally and financially."

Isis Castro, a former Fairfax County School Board member who is now on the Virginia Board of Education, said: "The programs that we implemented didn't work, and the communities that we were trying to help didn't have a real seat at the table."

Demographic mix

TJ, as the school is known, draws top students from a region with a rich demographic mix: Arlington, Fairfax, Fauquier, Loudoun and Prince William counties, Fairfax City and Falls Church. (Alexandria does not participate.) Together, black and Hispanic students account for about a third of all public school enrollment in those locales. At TJ, they account for less than 4 percent.

Ninety percent of TJ's 1,764 students are of Asian descent (the largest and fastest-growing group) or are non-Hispanic white (the second-largest). Nearly 6 percent are identified as multiracial.

Like other public schools with competitive admissions, TJ screens applicants through grades and test scores. A key requirement is that students take Algebra 1 by eighth grade. Many disadvantaged students don't clear that threshold, which presents a national challenge for science and math instruction.

Fierce competition

Competition to get into TJ is fierce. Some private companies charge hundreds of dollars to prepare students for the school's entrance exam, a two-hour test of math and verbal-reasoning skills. For those who get in, the payoff is clear. The school has an array of laboratories in fields such as biotechnology and microelectronics, and students follow a rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum that culminates in a senior research project.

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