Students applying to become next year's freshmen at the elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology will be the first affected by a new admissions policy adopted by the Fairfax County School Board, a school official said.
The new policy is meant to ensure that the school admits more minority students. School staff members must now work out details and write new regulations reflecting the board's wishes, spokesman Paul Regnier said yesterday. He said the process will be completed by spring, when students will be selected for the Class of 2009.
In a 10 to 1 vote Thursday night with one abstention, the board changed the rigid admissions formula for the highly selective school so that hundreds more applicants each year will make the first cut. Then, as they decide who will make the final cut, admissions officers will consider teacher recommendations, applicants' essays and other factors, including race, ethnicity, poverty and cultural experiences.
The old admissions formula relied heavily on a standardized admissions test to cut the initial pool of applicants -- 2,560 last year -- to 800. The new policy will remove the 800-student cap in the first cut and will include students who might be poor test-takers but have gotten good grades.
Regnier said the new policy means the school system will need to hire additional readers to give a full review to the applications of hundreds more students.
The vote is the latest step in a years-long and often emotional debate over the future of the magnet school, which is considered among the top high schools in the nation. Supporters of the new policy say more flexible admissions criteria will help ensure that bright, promising students who might not test as well as their peers will be considered for admission. Opponents worried that the change could lower the school's standards.
School Board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill) stressed that a student's admissions test score and grades will remain the dominant factors in determining who gets into Thomas Jefferson. But he said the old system excluded too many good applicants.
"I think what we're talking about is increasing opportunity," Gibson said. "I'm absolutely convinced there are students who could succeed at TJ who didn't have a fair shot at the process."
Thomas Jefferson's admissions policy came under scrutiny about three years ago, when some school officials and community leaders voiced concern that the student body didn't reflect the community's diversity.
This year, 11 black students and 10 Hispanic students were accepted into Thomas Jefferson's freshman class, school officials said. The class has 245 white students and 143 Asian students.
Under the old process, applicants to Thomas Jefferson took a multiple-choice admissions test. Each student was then given an overall rating, with the test score accounting for 80 percent and grade-point average 20 percent. Only the top 800 students made the cut and had their applications -- including their essays and teachers' recommendations -- reviewed by admissions officers.
The new process will include a sliding scale that sets a minimum for both the test score and the grade-point average and gives them variable weight. Most School Board members said they favored a scale that allowed consideration of a student with a 2.67 GPA and a 90 percent test score as well as a student with a 3.67 GPA and a 60 percent test score.
School officials said they anticipate that the new process will add a few hundred students to the semifinalist pool, but Regnier said that final decisions about the scale will be made in the coming months.
School Board member Stephen M. Hunt (At Large) voted against the change, and member Tessie Wilson (Braddock) abstained.
Louise Epstein, the mother of a Thomas Jefferson junior, said she worries that new freshmen could be less prepared for high-level classes and clubs, creating a less-challenging environment. She said she is concerned that some students with high grades but less rigorous class schedules might beat out B students who are taking advanced classes.
"Maybe TJ will start eliminating advanced courses, and some of the clubs and teams will die for lack of interest," Epstein said. "And it will become a school that meets the social goals of the policy's proponents."
But School Board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville) said she is confident that students selected through the new process will be ready for the rigors of Thomas Jefferson.
"We would not want to put children in there who are going to fail," Strauss said.
"Some of the most unusual thinkers don't conform to normal boxes and classroom situations."
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.