The disproportionately low number of black and Latino students admitted to Fairfax County’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology — long a subject of debate — has triggered a federal civil rights complaint.
The 17-page complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Education on Monday by the Coalition of The Silence, an advocacy group led by former county school board member Tina Hone, and the Fairfax chapter of the NAACP.
Fairfax school system officials could not comment because they had not had a chance to review the complaint, said spokesman John Torre.
The complaint alleges that black and Latino students, as well as students with disabilities, are being shut out of Thomas Jefferson long before they apply in eighth grade because of Fairfax County Public Schools’ systematic failure to identify them for gifted education programs that begin in elementary school.
“The solution to the problem of the lack of diversity in TJ admissions is not necessarily a fix just to the TJ admissions process,” Hone said in an interview. “There has to be a fix to the pipeline that feeds into the process.”
The Education Department’s civil rights office is responsible for enforcing laws that prohibit discrimination in schools based on race, color, national origin, gender, age and disability.
The office has the power to withhold federal funds from school systems that refuse to correct civil rights violations. Now it will decide whether the Fairfax allegations merit a full investigation.
Together, black and Latino students account for about 4 percent of the 480 students admitted to next year’s freshman class at Thomas Jefferson, or TJ. The two groups make up 32 percent of the county’s student population.
Students with disabilities are likely similarly underrepresented, the complaint alleges, although there is not enough publicly reported data about their numbers at TJ to know for sure, the complaint says.
The majority of freshmen admitted to TJ each year come from county middle schools that house so-called “Level IV centers,” highly sought-after programs that allow gifted and talented students to receive advanced courses full-time.
Students must qualify to received such high-level academic services through a process of observation and testing that begins as early as kindergarten. And the proportion of black and Latino kids who qualify is lower than the proportion of those groups in the overall school population.
The under-representation of minority children for gifted programs is not a problem confined to Fairfax, said Gary Orfield, a professor who directs the Civil Rights Project at the University of California-Los Angeles.
“It’s ubiquitous,” he said, “and it really does tell us something about the poverty of our concept of giftedness, because it’s so related to the concept of family income and privilege.”
Fairfax has tried to address disparities in recent years by tinkering with the way gifted kids are identified. The hope was to capture students with extraordinary aptitude for learning — including those students from disadvantaged backgrounds who arrived in kindergarten with less preparation than their more affluent peers.
The changes did succeed in identifying thousands more students, but some minorities remain underrepresented.
For example, of the 12,044 elementary- and middle-school students who qualify for Level IV, 455 are black, according to the school system’s Web site. That means black students account for 3.8 percent of the gifted student population, although they are 10 percent of the student population overall.
Meanwhile, Hispanic students account for 6.2 percent of gifted students but make up 22 percent of the entire student body.
The net effect, according to the complaint, which echoes the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that desegregated public schools, is two “separate and unequal” school systems — one that funnels students through advanced programs to TJ, and one that does not.
“To allow some students access to the richness of the bounty of TJ, without trying to level the playing field for all students, seems to violate the fundamental principle of equal opportunity for all,” the complaint says.
The complaint also faults the TJ admissions process itself for putting some students at a disadvantage.
One example, the complaint says, is the “student information sheet” used to assess a teen’s motivation and commitment to math and science education. A question asks students to “Describe in detail your most important out-of-school or after-school activity or interest.”
“For many black and Latino students, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds,” the complaint says, “their most significant after school activity may well be babysitting their younger siblings while their parents work.”
Hone said she and others decided to file the complaint in part because they think that the long-standing concerns about diversity at TJ have been drowned out in recent months by a new worry: that the admissions process is failing to identify the brightest math and science students.
That issue was the center of attention at a July 19 School Board work session on whether to overhaul the TJ admissions process. Hone said the solution that seemed to garner support from most school board members — increasing the weight of an applicant’s math test scores and decreasing the weight of essays — would not change outcomes for black and Latino kids.
Orfield, the UCLA professor, said there’s no way to know whether the Fairfax complaint will spur a federal investigation. But he said he believes it merits attention.
“It’s certainly a justifiable issue to look at closely,” he said. “Really great schools like TJ are huge assets for individuals and for communities, and they should be available fairly to everybody.”