A proposal to diversify the student body at the elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology by giving less weight to applicants' test scores is on the Fairfax County School Board agenda for the first time tonight, and some parents say summer is the wrong season to consider such a controversial issue.
So many people are on vacation, said Jeanine Martin, a Vienna mother of a Jefferson graduate. "There isn't enough time for people to find out and get input into this." Martin, who sits on the school district's Gifted and Talented Advisory Council and the superintendent's Community Advisory Council, said the opinions of those two groups -- which do not meet in the summer -- also should be taken into account.
Jefferson, a magnet school that draws students from across Northern Virginia, has long grappled with the role of race in admissions. Almost 3,000 students apply every year, and 800 semifinalists are selected based on a multiple-choice test of math and verbal skills. Last year, the student body was about 1 percent black and 2 percent Hispanic.
Last month, a panel of admissions experts recommended that the school do away with the cutoff score on the admissions test and consider factors such as teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities and essays.
Until 1998, the school in the Alexandria section of the county selected some minority students for the semifinal round whose test scores fell below the cutoff but who seemed otherwise qualified. Five years ago, lawyers advised Fairfax County to abandon any affirmative action in admissions, but the U.S. Supreme Court's June 2003 ruling that the University of Michigan could consider race in admissions prompted school officials to revisit the process at Thomas Jefferson.
According to the panel's recommendation, which the School Board will consider tonight and again at a work session Monday, "work must begin immediately" so the amended admissions process can be in place by the fall for students applying to Jefferson next year.
School Board Chairman Kathy L. Smith (Sully) said that the board expects to vote on a new admissions policy in September, but that the outreach efforts recommended by the panel -- from posting test preparation booklets online to translating recruitment materials into Spanish -- will begin now.
"I think we've been very open," Smith said. "We always want to hear from the public. We have a few months here."
A public hearing will be held July 21 at Jackson Middle School in Falls Church. Already, members of the Fairfax County branch of the NAACP are mobilizing to speak at that meeting, President Thomas Wilkins said.
"We thought the recommendations had merits, and they ought to be implemented as quickly as possible," he said. His concern, he said, was not with the speed of implementation but the manner in which the school system tends to communicate policy changes via e-mail and the Internet.
"Most of the people we represent don't use computers," Wilkins said.
Some parents questioned how much outreach had been done with the county's Asians, who represent the largest minority group at Jefferson. Of the 450 students admitted to Thomas Jefferson for the fall, 245 are white, 143 are Asian, 30 are multiracial, 11 are black, 10 are Hispanic, one is Native American and 10 listed "other" on their applications.
"A number of Asian parents I talked to did not know about this," said Richard Shin, who emigrated from Korea. His daughter graduated from Jefferson last year and his son will be a sophomore in the fall. "It was not well publicized."
Although several Asian parents fear that their numbers will dwindle under the proposal, Shin said he recognizes a value in diversity -- even among the Asians.
"Some of the Asian students at TJ are not as proficient in English. They have immigrated. Any kind of movement toward a more subjective criteria might remove these students," Shin said. "We're going to have to come up with some long-term solutions. Any kind of short-gap measure just won't work."