Narrowing N.Va. high school's diversity gap

Thursday, November 11, 2010; 8:29 PM

REVELATIONS ABOUT the dwindling number of African American and Hispanic students at Fairfax County's acclaimed Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology have sparked debate about achievement versus diversity. It is a false choice. Surely a school system that is seen as among the nation's best should be capable of readying - and recruiting - a broader spectrum of its students for the rigorous academic demands of the selective school.

The lack of diversity at TJ, as the school is known, is not a new issue. The school board created a blue ribbon committee in 2004 to come up with a plan for diversification. But, alarmingly, the number of African American and Hispanic students admitted to the school has declined since then - from 5.54 percent during the 2005-06 school year to 3.5 percent in 2009-10. This year's incoming class, The Post's Kevin Sieff reported, has just four African Americans and 13 Hispanics of the 480 students admitted. The numbers are all the more disappointing since the school is able to draw students from most of Northern Virginia, an area with richly varied demographics. African Americans and Hispanics comprise a third of the enrollment of the systems TJ draws from.

The difficulties confronting Fairfax are not unique, but its record, compared with that of other selective high schools, is inferior. To their credit, Fairfax officials aren't making excuses. "We need to do a better job of evening the playing field," Fairfax deputy superintendent Richard Moniuszko told The Post. That doesn't mean - as some critics of diversity would claim - watering down the standards. High standards and a more inclusive student population are not incompatible.

Certainly, officials should examine the admissions process to see whether there are subjective criteria that work against minority students without enhancing the quality of the student body. But we suspect officials are right that the problem is not with how admissions are conducted but with insufficient attention being paid to seeking out talent and preparing students at a much earlier stage. That's why it is important officials are looking to make its honor systems more accessible and exposing students to Algebra I at an earlier age.

Also to be applauded is the formation of the Diversity and Engagement Curriculum Team to build interest in TJ at middle schools that have been traditionally overlooked. Such a team can play a big role in putting TJ on the radar screen of children and families who otherwise might not even consider the school as an option. Challenging students to raise their expectations and helping prepare them to fulfill their higher ambitions is what first-rate school systems are supposed to do.

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