washingtonpost.com
One thing elite N.Va. school doesn't do well

By Kevin Sieff
Sunday, October 31, 2010; A1

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, Fairfax's deputy superintendent. "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.

TJ churns out dozens of National Merit scholars and routinely sends graduates to top colleges. Last year, the school's average SAT score was 2184 out of 2400. U.S. News & World Report ranks it the top high school in the country.

Yet for thousands of black and Hispanic middle school students in Northern Virginia, TJ is a long shot. The overall admissions rate is 15 percent. But it's 2 percent for black students and 6 percent for Hispanic students.

"Sometimes in class I look around and think, 'I know a lot of people who could be here, but they didn't know about it, or they didn't know how to prepare,' " said Alexandria Sutton, an African American junior at TJ. "At my middle school, it was not advertised at all."

Ariel Copeland, a senior at TJ, remembers reading "Beloved," the Toni Morrison novel about slavery, in junior English. Copeland, the only black student in the class, squirmed in her seat during discussions. "It was so awkward," she said. "I could tell people were looking at me."

After class, some students approached Copeland to apologize for the nation's history of slavery. "I was like, 'You don't have to apologize,' " she said.

History teacher Melissa Schoeplein said she sometimes gives lessons on race and poverty in a classroom without any black or Hispanic students. The lack of diversity, she said, means that students "are missing out on a critical part of their education."

TJ's black and Hispanic seniors, like their peers, are considering a range of selective universities. Richie Hernandez is thinking about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lucia Melgarejo is looking at Duke University. Copeland likes the College of William & Mary.

Wherever they land, they are virtually certain of two things.

"We know we'll be ready for college," Hernandez said.

"And we know college is almost definitely going to be more diverse," Melgarejo said.

Affirmative action on trial

It wasn't always this way. For more than a decade after its founding in 1985, the school actively sought to diversify its enrollment, even if that sometimes meant admitting students with lower test scores than others. In 1997, the school admitted 24 Hispanic students and 25 black students.

That year, several federal courts struck down school affirmative action programs, and attorneys advised Fairfax school officials to end any racial or ethnic preferences. The number of black and Hispanic freshmen plummeted.

In 2003, the Supreme Court struck down a race-based undergraduate admissions policy at the University of Michigan but narrowly upheld a policy at the University of Michigan Law School that allowed the consideration of race as part of a comprehensive examination of an applicant. The majority agreed that the law school had an interest in "the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."

In response, Fairfax officials tweaked the TJ admissions policy in 2004 to allow race to be considered as a factor. The change drew an outcry from some parents, who said the policy discriminated against qualified white students. Even so, the admissions rates for black and Hispanic students have been falling.

Under the policy, applicants are screened first on admissions test scores and grades. Then admissions panels, mostly teachers and administrators from other area schools, consider subjective criteria such as essays and teacher recommendations. At that point, race and ethnicity can come into play. But generally they don't.

"The numbers are unlikely to change under the current policy," said Judy Howard, who was the school's admissions director from 2004 until last spring. The county's admissions protocols promote diversity broadly but don't put particular emphasis on race.

"We thought we'd given committee members enough latitude to consider diversity as a factor," Moniuszko said. "But the results say otherwise."

National trend

Across the country, a number of selective regional schools like TJ "have backed off affirmative action in recent years," said Letita Mason, a board member of the National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools of Mathematics, Science and Technology. "It's not popular. It's not something they want to tackle."

In Montgomery County, the prestigious Science, Mathematics and Computer Science Magnet Program at Montgomery Blair High School does not consider race as a factor in admissions. About 8 percent of freshmen in the program are African American or Hispanic. But those two groups account for 46 percent of enrollment countywide.

In the District, the selective public School Without Walls also does not consider race in admissions. Black and Hispanic students account for 67 percent of enrollment at the school, compared with 91 percent in the city school system.

Fairfax school officials say that diversifying TJ requires more than making admissions criteria more flexible. It means helping black and Hispanic students keep up with their white and Asian American counterparts at an early age, especially in math and science.

Since 2000, a county program known as Young Scholars has tried to recruit elementary students who might one day attend TJ. More than half of the program's 3,776 students between kindergarten and eighth grade are black or Hispanic. Next spring, the first 30 Young Scholars will graduate from high school. Only one will be a TJ graduate.

The school's Parent Teacher Student Association also offers free test-preparation courses for minority students. But a few years ago, the Fairfax school system eliminated another program, known as Quest, which sought to spark interest in TJ by taking minority students to the campus several times a month for science and math programs.

For now, most TJ students come from a group of middle schools that serve neighborhoods that are mostly affluent and mostly white or Asian.

"I've always been known as 'that smart black girl' - at middle school and now at TJ," said Adrienne Ivey, a junior. "It gets old."

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