Post Magazine: The Challenge for TJ

Hosted by Tyler Currie
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 8, 2005; 1:00 PM

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology may be a magnet, but it's having a hard time attracting enough minorities.

Tyler Currie, whose article about the attempt of eighth-graders Miguel Bustamante and Kiara Savage to gain admittance to Virginia's most prestigious public school appeared in yesterday's Washington Post Magazine , was online Monday, Aug. 8 to field questions and comments.

Tyler Currie is a Magazine contributing writer.

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Tyler Currie: Hello Magazine readers. We have ourselves a real lighting rod of an issue today, admissions at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which is arguably the best high school in the country. Let's get started

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Washington, DC: Hello,

I graduated from McLean High School when Elizabeth Lodal was principal. As I read the article yesterday, I reflected on my high school years and college years. I often think that pressure applied to kids is unwarranted. Look -- no, I didn't go to Harvard, Yale, or even UVA. But am I a loser?; Am I begging on the streets?; No!; The notion that college, or even high school has some kind of do or die fatality is just plain stupid. It's tiring, and to be quite honest, is plain insulting.

Tyler Currie: Amen! Life is a lot richer than the framed degrees tacked to an office wall.

But don't deny that formal education is surpassingly important if you want to have choices in life. This is probably more ture now than ever before. It'd be great if a diploma from the School of Life was good as gold for everyone. But it's not. I think the great demand for slots at TJ reflects this understanding.

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Washington, D.C.: Why would you say TJ is underrepresented by minorities when there's ample representation from Asians? If asians can make it to the top schools on merit and not affirmative action, why can't other minorities?

Tyler Currie: I would not say that "TJ is underrepresented by minorities." Walking around the school you don't get any sense of homogeneity. You're right. Asians are well represented, about 30 percent of the student body. Of course, the term Asian masks quite a bit of ethic and cultural variety that's evident at the school. There are Korean kids, Chinese, Indian, Persian, Filipino kids.

Meanwhile African American and Hispanic students are about 4 percent of the TJ student body. Overall in Fairfax County public schools, kids from these groups are about a quarter of the population. So, yes, these minority students are underrepresented at TJ.

Your last question is a toughie. On the one hand I disagree with the premise-that affirmative action policies are inimical to merit-based decisions. On the other hand, you point to a really vexing problem, the achievement gap. Why are African American and Hispanic students often lagging behind their white and Asian peers? (Here a recent report on the achievement gap in Fairfax County, http://www.fcps.k12.va.us/DEA/msa/eleven_report_card_2005.pdf) I don't have a pat answer to that question.

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Tyler Currie: Washington, DC: Contrapositive: "Race and ethnicity, the Fairfax County School Board declared last fall, would be among the factors weighed in selecting the fall 2005 freshman class."

"There aren't that many opportunities for Latinos." - Nora Bustamante

I don't necessarily disagree with the policy - but I can see why some people do. The young lady (Kiara) says she will be accused that she got into the school because of her race - the problem is disproving that. If race and ethnicity were not a factor - would she have been admitted? In some ways, the policy is a disservice to the girl because there is no way for her to know. Comments?

MY RESPONSE: Yes, one argument against affirmative action-type policies is that it hangs a cloud of suspicion over those who may or may not have benefited from whatever preference. I don't really buy that argument, especially when it's applied to TJ. The number of admitted African Americans didn't change much this year, versus last year when the policy wasn't in place. The overarching criteria for admission are still academic, not racial, ethnic, or gender-based.

An interesting analog comes to mind My dad is a smart dude, no doubt, but in high school I believe that he finished in the middle of the pack. He still got into Yale, where my grandfather had gone and legacies counted big-time-I imagine that they still count for something, though perhaps not as much. I wonder if my dad's presence at Yale was second-guessed by his classmates. I'd wager not. I suppose that preferences have a long and varied history.

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Falls Church, Va: As an Hispanic rising senior at Thomas Jefferson High School and Publicist for the school's Hispanic Alliance, I was disappointed that my group received no mention in your article about the diversity issue at TJ. The Hispanic Alliance is small but active club that has been part of the TJ extracurricular program for several years. We work to provide support for the Hispanic community within TJ and outreach to the larger Hispanic community. We run a mentoring program during the school year for Hispanic students at a neighboring elementary school and next year plan to visit area middle schools to give talks aimed at Hispanic students encouraging them to apply to TJ. We even promote Hispanic culture at TJ with latin dances and performances. Too many families think there is no Hispanic community at TJ and we are aiming to reverse that image. I would like everyone to know that we are working to tackle the diversity issue by personally welcoming all Hispanic students at TJ.

Tyler Currie: Sorry about that...

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking article. Just one question: Has there ever been any analysis done of the performance of TJ's students by race or other factor? Put another way, how are these kids doing once they actually get to the school?

Tyler Currie: None that I know of. As far as I know they do well. TJ is like Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.

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Washington, D.C.: What an excellent article!; I appreciate how hard it is to write a newsworthy piece that addresses a difficult subject (affirmative action, in this case) in an evenhanded manner. I think you succeeded.

I got the sense from your piece that no one in authority at the high school (principle, other administrators, and teachers) spoke out against the affirmative action plan that the school has implemented. How much intellectual diversity is there on the school's staff?; Is the school peopled by a mix of those with different political viewpoints, or is it to the left of the political spectrum?;

Tyler Currie: That's an excellent question. I wish I had an excellent answer. I spoke with several teachers who supported the school system's diversity policy and met none who opposed it, though I'd bet they're out there. Teacher opinions weren't what I was chasing.

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Washington, D.C.: Are the average admission test scores for minorities at the school lower than the average test scores for non-minorities?; From the emphasis on affirmative actiona ddressed in your article, I got the sense that this was the case. If so, do minority students "catch up" to non-minorities by the time that college testing occurs (i.e., is there no discernable difference in the test scores on the SAT or ACT)?;

Tyler Currie: I can't answer the second part of your question. But this may illuminate the first part.

Last fall there were 2,902 applicants for TJ admission. Here's the partial racial/ethnic break down of those students: 47.21% white, 6.06% black, 7.82 % Hispanic, 31.08% Asian.

Of those applicants, 1601 students passed the TJ test and qualified for the second round. Here in part is the break down of that group: 54.31 % white, 2.32% African American, 5.08% Hispanic, 30.18% Asian.

These numbers suggest how different kids did on the test, although GPAs were also part of the equation when passing kids to the second round.

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Washington DC: What is the basis for assuming that "diversity" comes from the color of one's skin or one's mother tongue?; Any assumption based on race or language is racist (by definition). Why is Spanish accorded special status and not other languages?; "Hispanics" are artificially created by liberals to try to win elections. White Hispanics are no different than whites from anywhere else and yet, they are somehow accorded special privileges because they claim to be somehow disadvantaged. Too bad for the Brazilians and non-Spanish Europeans who do not speak English either. It's bad enough that liberals are encouraging illegal entry by illiterate unskilled people without the entire system being skewed to support them and give them special privileges. Why do you want to dumb down the nation?;

Tyler Currie: It sounds like you got a bee in your bonnet. But you still point to some interesting questions.

How to define diversity is an on-going question, for sure. But you do you believe that skin color and native language play no role in forming Americans' views of themselves and others? Am I reading you right?

The TJ diversity policy says nothing about Spanish speakers and accords them no special status. Instead, it refers to "English for speakers of other languages." At the same time, Spanish is by far the biggest of those languages both in Fairfax County and nationwide. In Fairfax there are about 25,000 Hispanic students in a system with about 160,000 kids. The magnitude of these numbers alone forces their issues to the front. More so than those of, say, the Bulgarians kids struggling to learn English and compete with their native-born peers.

I agree that the term "Hispanic" is, at-best, misleading. I don't see a lot of resemblance between my step-mother, a white computer programmer-slash-nurse from Chile, and the mestizo Salvadorans I know from working in Washington restaurants. But your idea that "Hispanic" is a concept concocted by liberals to win elections? Come on, what liberal has won an election recently?

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Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: "I wonder if my dad's presence at Yale was second-guessed by his classmates. I'd wager not." Maybe not back then, but nowadays? Are you KIDDING me? YES! I also went to a top college and legacies were......well, if not always looked down on, exactly, they definitely had to prove they deserved to be there. If we knew that so-and-so's father and grandfather went there, everyone definitely did a little eye-roll about them being there.

Tyler Currie: Excellent point.

And for the sake of disclosure, it's probably worth saying that Yale told me to buzz off when I applied ten years ago. My grades weren't that good and my application essay included a piece of fiction about the brutal murder of a house cat. I don't think they thought that was funny.

Anecdotes aside, I don't buy the idea that those who directly benefit or are imagined to have benefited from a diversity policy will crumple for lack of self esteem.

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Virginia: You wrote "Why are African American and Hispanic students often lagging behind their white and Asian peers?". the answer is that black parents are not involved in education becasue they and their kids did not want to be labeled as too white by their peers and friends.

Tyler Currie: Probably an over simplification on your part.

But still the lie that getting good grades means "acting white is" needs to be undone. Suggestions?

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Waterford, Va: As a class of 2000 graduate of Thomas Jefferson, I was lucky to count among my closest friends Indian, black, Hispanic, asian, and white students. I do understand, however, that the proportion of minorities has gone down since I left. While diversity is a good thing, I am not sure that it should be a stated goal of the admissions committee and TJ administration. I am concerned by Lodal's statements that there aren't enough minorities - the question that has never been asked is "how many would be enough?;" This is important in addressing how far TJ must go in its admission policies in order to increase its diversity. Secondly, if more minorities are admitted to TJ, perhaps through psuedo-affirmative action policies, will "non-minority" students (white and Asian) be passed over in favor of less qualified "minority" students?; Finally, will Fairfax begin to address the issue of WHY there are so few minority 8th graders who are prepared to attend TJ?; It seems to me that until the Fairfax County Public School system is ready to take responsibility for the failure of its Elementary and Middle Schools in educating minorities, TJ will remain a predominantly white and Asian school.

Tyler Currie: Yes, the achievment gap starts early on. That's the best place to nip it. To the credit of Fairfax County Public School, there's been some progress on this front and it seems to be a priority.

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Fairfax, Va.: Hi, I just graduated from TJ and I'm here with a rising senior, and we believe that under-represention of minorities at TJ would be much better solved at the elementary and middle school levels. I seem to recall that you mentioned Kiara as being one of very few African Americans in Rachel Carson's GT program. Wouldn't it make a lot more sense to emphasize placing minorities in GT and other types of earlier programs that send lots of students to TJ every year rather than switching them over to harder level classes starting in 9th grade?

Tyler Currie: Absolutely. And that's begin done now. I just can't remember off the top of my head the name of the program that aims to get more of these minority students into the GT programs.

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Oakton, Va.: I really couldn't believe that the Post is yet again writing the TJ/diversity story. There are so many other issues that affect so many more students than the makeup of this one magnet school. TJ and the county are working on this difficult issue, something the paper has reported on frequently. I'd like to see the effort and space given over to the many other difficult issues facing public high schools, like safety, curriculum quality, textbooks, the squeezing out of art and music programs, the death grip of the SOL's, the lack of good science and math education, etc. You guys need to get out and report, not dredge up the same ol' same ol'.

Tyler Currie: My editor promised to read this chat today. I'll let her stew on that one.

I had a few TJ kids groan when I told them what I was writing about. I think many of them are sick of hearing about this.

BUT the question of access to elite institutions are not resolved. And this is not simply a drummed-up controversy on the part of conflict hungry reporters. The number of questions sitting in my queue right now is enormous, more than I've ever had for an on-line chat.

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Washington, DC: Your article focuses on students trying to "gain admittance to Virginia's most prestigious public school."

Would you ever consider writing a similar in depth profile about some of the very successful public schools in Washington, DC?;

I teach at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School. 95% of our students are African American. All of our seniors are admitted to one or more colleges each year. A number go on to Stanford. Two are starting Princeton this month and for the last three years one of our seniors has been admitted to MIT. Your magazine this summer featured the Intel Finalists from Montgomery Blair HS in Maryland, but last year a Banneker student placed 9th nationally in the same competition - yet this award received little attention in your paper.

There is a lot that is going well in DCPS. Superintendent Janey is making a big difference. Our students, like the ones you profiled in the article, just want a good education and are willing to work hard to get it.

Tyler Currie: I'd love to. I've written quite a bit about DCPS. Send an email to me at the magazine, 20071 AT washpost dot com.

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Washington, D.C.: I will be a junior this year at TJ, and I can't see why acceptance should be based on anything but academic merit. I know I worked my butt off to get into Jefferson - I dreamed of going there before I even hit middle school. I did everything in my power to make sure I had a better chance of getting in. Now, I understand that not every student thinks about high school that early (I was a strange one), but maybe the school system should. Overhauling TJ's admissions process doesn't help anything in the long run - in fact, it gives the impression that the school is being 'dumbed down'. The school system, instead of finding fault in a high school, the last peg of education before college, should look towards their elementary schools. Fix the problem at an early age. Make sure there's equal opportunity for everyone at that time. Don't blame Jeffererson for it later.

Tyler Currie: My guess is that in the long run you'll see that the school is not being "dumbed down." I understand that that's the fear, but this year's numbers suggest the fear isn't based in reality. The doors were not thrown open to anyone just because of their ethnicity or race or gender or whatever.

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Washington, D.C.: "I don't buy the idea that those who directly benefit or are imagined to have benefited from a diversity policy will crumple for lack of self esteem." That's not the point. The point is that it's a bit disingenuous for people to clamor for lowered admissions standards and then complain that others doubt that they deserve to be there. (I heard this many times (mostly from undergrads) at the University of Michigan, where I went to law school.) Well, if you're so deserving, why do you need lower standards?;

Tyler Currie: In this case, the admissions standards were not lowered.

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Fairfax, VA: It took 2 years to get Kiara in the GT Center. She did not get in until 5th grade. We went through 2 rejections. If it wasn't for the principal of her elementary keeping us encouraged, she would have never gotten in, thus probably not making it into TJ. How did anyone expect the minority TJ numbers to go up significantly when there is such an underrepresentation in GT?; There has been some improvements in trying to get minority enrollment into GT, but there is still a long way ago.

Tyler Currie: From the Savage family, I'm guessing...

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Response to Virginia: You stated 'the answer is that black parents are not involved in education becasue they and their kids did not want to be labeled as too white by their peers and friends.' No. There is a large discrepancy in the education that children receive. This discrepancy depends on the location of the school that the child attends and the curriculum taught. I had two sons in two different middle schools and I can tell you that although PG County mandates that all curriculum is the same, I hold true that it is not. My oldest received a far better education than my youngest. I supplemented the younger ones education with exercises in math, science, literature and grammer to make sure that he did not fall behind. But for other parents who don't notice the discrepancies?; I am not sure I would have caught it if it had not been for them attending two seperate middle schools. So, it is not a lack of effort by the parent in thinking that being educated means acting white. It is a lack of effort within the school system by individual educators. Some go above and beyond and some are just there for a paycheck.

Tyler Currie: A parent's response...

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Springfield, VA: Hi, I'm another relatively recent TJ graduate (Class of 2003) and I want to second the posts saying that the problem begins in the elementary schools. I was in the GT Center program in Fairfax County beginning in 3rd grade and continuing through the 8th grade. I can count on my two hands the number of African-American classmates I had over all those years combined. I went to Mark Twain Middle School in the Alexandria section of the county and while the school was one of the most diverse middle schools in the county, in all of the honors or GT classes there were maybe 5 African-Americans and 4 Hispanics. The problem is not just at TJ and the School Board should focus on getting minorities involved in its GT or Honors curriculums far in advance of the TJ application process.

Tyler Currie: Yes, that seems to be the consensus.

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Washington, DC: I agree with the question regarding Hispanics - the concept of "diversity" is fundamentally flawed in that it reinforces stereotypes that there is a direct connection between race and values, political views, and life experiences. By using "diversity" as the basis for a more "balanced student experience," aren't we really saying that black students can provide the ghetto perspective, asian students the boat people's perspective, hispanics the bario perspective, and white students the middle class country club perspective?; Why not judge a student not by the color of their skin but the content of thier character. Perhaps remove "race" from the admission form altogether?;

Finally, the most troublesome element of affirmative action in school admissions, is that it will forever cast doubt upon even the legitimate achievements of minorities. Your example of legacy Yale admissions is irrelevant simply because there are Yale graduates of all races who can claim legacy status. By rigging school admissions we penalize those who fall outside the carefully crafted racial labels.

Tyler Currie: The question of affirmative action is a hot one...

But the notion that race and ethnicty are null factors in the lives of Americans seems way out of touch with reality.

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Washington, D.C.: Regarding the achievement gap, which you call a "vexing problem" the source of which is elusive, do you ever consider that average IQs in different ethnic groups might differ?; This possible explanation is never touched upon in places like the Washington Post. Yet, if it is true (and I don't know whether it is or not), it has a crucial implication. Namely, that there will never be exactly proportional representation of each ethnicity at a high-achieving school like TJ, absent lower standards based on race. Shouldn't you at least consider (and write about) this possibility?;

Tyler Currie: Nope.

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Tyler Currie: Okay folks, I need to split. Thank you for the outpouring of responses. Keep reading. Keep writing.

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