Dear Extra Credit:
The county school system appears to be less open about the problem of minority achievement. One recent way in which this reluctance is expressed is the district's failure to release statistics on the Fairfax middle schools from which students were admitted to the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in 2005. Admission to TJ is, in a way, a barometer of minority achievement in the different middle schools with relatively high numbers of minority students.
To understand what is happening with minority achievement in the school system, Fairfax citizens need to know, for one thing, the middle schools from which TJ students are admitted.
I sent your good question to school spokesman Paul Regnier, and he sent me a list of the county middle schools and how each did in the competition for places at Thomas Jefferson.
TJ may be the highest-performing public high school in the country, and it has an admissions system that, despite recent changes to try to improve minority enrollment, is still based largely on academic achievement.
I want to pursue further the implications of these numbers after I hear from other readers, but since you got this started, I asked you for your reaction to the numbers Regnier sent me.
"It shows that the schools with GT [gifted and talented] centers and low poverty rates are gaining the most admissions," you told me in an e-mail. "Most students who are admitted to TJ are probably in the GT program. That makes sense to a certain extent, but it certainly makes one wonder if there is a difference in the quality of the instruction provided in the different GT programs. Can it only be explained by poverty?"
You noted the large number of TJ students from Longfellow Middle School and did some analysis based on the total number of students at that school, which includes a GT center and draws heavily from McLean.
"What is Longfellow doing that other schools couldn't be doing? Any kind of normal distribution of students would not produce these results. Why can't what Longfellow and other high-admission schools are doing be done in other low-achieving schools?"
Those are good questions. I welcome thoughts from readers, and I may quote more of your analysis in future columns.
It may help readers to know that the six middle schools with the lowest percentages of low-income students (and among the lowest percentages of African American and Hispanic students) are Cooper Middle School in McLean (1 percent low-income), Frost Middle School in Fairfax (2 percent), Longfellow (6.1 percent), Thoreau Middle School in Vienna (6.3 percent), Carson Middle School in Herndon (6.6 percent) and Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly (7.3 percent). Kilmer Middle School in Vienna, which sent as many students to TJ as Longfellow did, has a poverty level almost as low, 10.2 percent, as measured by the number of students receiving federal lunch subsidies.
I thought it odd that Cooper and Thoreau sent relatively few students to TJ, given their low poverty rates, but learned that many of the GT students in their neighborhoods attend other schools with GT centers and those students who get into TJ do not show up on their totals.
The only answer I have for your good questions about Longfellow is that its faculty includes Vern Williams, one of the best math teachers I have ever seen in action. But there may be other explanations.
Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 4020 University Dr., Suite 220, Fairfax, Va. 22030. Or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.