Diversity is a tough test for Thomas Jefferson High, the country's most selective school

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 7:13 PM

My colleague Kevin Sieff reported last week that the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is not only the most selective school in the United States, but also one of the least diverse. After years of Jefferson promising to reach out to the third of Northern Virginia students who are black or Hispanic, fewer than 4 percent of the school's students are of those ethnicities, while ultra-selective colleges such as Harvard and MIT manage to have about 20 percent.

When you create a school based more on sorting than teaching, as Fairfax County did with Jefferson in 1985, it is hard to break the habit of picking applicants by their accomplishments and test scores at age 13, rather than their potential to benefit from Jefferson's great teachers.

But 4 percent is not good enough. There are more eligible black and Hispanic students who are capable of handling the Jefferson curriculum. Last year, the school says, 52 Hispanics and 29 blacks reached the semifinal round of admissions, based on their good academic records. But only 13 Hispanics and four blacks were enrolled. The ability to benefit from the school's imaginative teaching is not the main criteria for the admissions people, I suspect. Like the rest of us, they are impressed by test scores.

I have seen the Ivy League admissions process at close range. Applicants in the 95th percentile on standardized tests are not seriously considered because there are so many in the 99th percentile above them. Those colleges will, however, take a second look if you are a talented flautist or a ranked squash player or black or an alumni child or Hispanic or related to the family that just funded the new science center.

Jefferson teachers tell me their admission committee is more handicapped by the fact that many bright eighth-graders of all ethnicities don't want to attend their school or any like it. At many of most selective public schools, students of Asian ancestry are the largest ethnic group. This is true of Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Hunter College in New York City, and Lowell and Whitney in California, all of which draw from areas where Asians are a minority. At 46 percent, Asians also are the most common ethnicity at Jefferson.

There are two ways to explain this. First, most parents have little opportunity or interest in sending their children to selective high schools, public or private. We think our kids can get just as good an education in the neighborhood school. In many cases, we are right. Most Northern Virginia schools have teachers who are just as good as those at Jefferson.

Second, many Asian American families, particularly those more recently arrived, have a reverence for science, scholarship and school success not typical of this country. They remember prestigious selective secondary schools in China, Japan and Korea, and they tend to apply to schools such as Jefferson out of proportion to their numbers.

Their children get terrific educations, but they learn eventually that attending Jefferson does not guarantee admission to Princeton or Yale. Those colleges dole out admissions like Halloween candy: not too many to any one high school.

So broadening the ethnic profile of our nation's best high schools should not be that hard. Many educators and students supporting Jefferson have formed a Diversity and Engagement Curriculum Team to recruit more blacks and Hispanics and inspire an interest in science and math that will impress the admissions committee. The key to their effort is that success in the United States stems more from character than test-taking ability. Washington offices are full of brilliant people who lacked the patience, persistence and charm to rise as high as they hoped.

Sadly, we haven't figured out a sure way to teach character. The largest federal study of character-building or social-development programs recently reported little progress in improving student behavior or achievement. But we can tell which Jefferson applicants show signs of the determination and grace that produce great lives. Just ask their middle school teachers.

Many of the most promising ones will be black and Hispanic. Give more of them a chance, and Jefferson will not only be a more interesting school to attend but also more reflective of the values we want all of our kids to have.

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