The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hear from four TJ freshmen admitted under controversial circumstances

Clockwise from top left: Students Sarah Castillo, Ershad Sulaiman, Julie Marco and Kai Bilal. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Sarah Castillo, 15, grew up never considering the possibility of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Then two years ago, Thomas Jefferson, known as TJ and frequently ranked the best public high school in America, radically altered its admissions process, eliminating a much-feared test and a $100 application fee, in the hope of admitting more students of color and low-income students.

The changes at the magnet school in Northern Virginia sent parents and alumni into a frenzy. Some were thrilled that the first class admitted under the new system boasted more Black and Hispanic students, at 7 percent and 11 percent, than any other in recent memory. But others lamented a 20 percent decrease in Asian American representation, and a group of disgruntled parents eventually filed a lawsuit alleging the admissions system is racially discriminatory. That suit, which recently drew the attention of the Supreme Court, is ongoing.

Supreme Court lets the Thomas Jefferson admissions policy stand

But, as the adults went to battle in courtrooms, students such as Sarah Castillo were reconsidering their options. Hundreds of students who had neither thought of applying to TJ, nor felt they had a chance of acceptance under the old admissions system, now took the plunge, and some of them, including Sarah, got in.

These students spent the past year finding their way inside the school, adjusting to its notoriously heavy workload and trying to make good grades alongside good friends. Constantly sounding in the background, even for those who tried to ignore it, were the voices of adults, and sometimes fellow students, who insisted the admissions process that accepted them was illegitimate, that they did not belong at TJ.

The Washington Post followed four TJ freshmen — Sarah Castillo, Ershad Sulaiman, Kaiwan Bilal and Julie Marco — through a difficult, unusual and absorbing academic year. Here, in their own words, is what it was like.

Sarah Castillo, 15

Sometimes, when kids talk at school, they say the old TJ admissions system was better. They say the new one, the one I went through, is too easy. They say more Black and Hispanic kids are getting in now. They say those kids aren’t ready for TJ. They say there’s a reason those kids weren’t getting in before.

Kids like me, they mean. My mother is from Bolivia. She is a preschool teacher. She never heard of TJ until I showed her the application. I grew up knowing almost nothing about TJ. Nobody I knew talked about it.

When I got older, and learned more, I pictured TJ as a big white building with supercomputers and high-tech science labs, full of really smart kids. But I never thought it was someplace I would go. I never took any TJ test prep classes. I wasn’t the best in my class at math.

Thomas Jefferson will welcome most diverse class in recent history

Then I heard they got rid of the really difficult TJ test that asked you to solve math problems. I figured I would apply. It couldn’t hurt. And maybe it could help. Maybe graduating TJ would help me find a job as a pilot.

I’ve wanted to be a pilot since fourth grade, when I learned about Amelia Earhart. I love planes. I love flying. The feeling when a plane takes off, a feeling you don’t get anywhere else. So I hit “Submit.” I couldn’t believe it when I got in.

The workload at TJ was actually less than I expected. It never got obscenely difficult. I just had to keep track of my assignments. I feel sorry for the kids I see who spend all their time on school. You need balance to be happy.

I joined the lacrosse team. I also joined a club called Project Caelus. We’re building a liquid-fueled rocket and sending it into space. I still think I want to be a pilot, but now I’m considering rocket science, too.

I’ve become really close with the few Hispanic kids in my class. I was recently named vice president of the Hispanic Community Club. We talk to each other about the little things other kids sometimes say, like how Spanish is a “gangster language.”

Or the times people have told my friends things like, “You’re only here because of the new admissions system.” No one has said that to me, but sometimes I feel like they’re thinking it. I don’t believe other kids mean to be malicious. I just think they don’t know any better. That’s why I want to see more Hispanic students at TJ.

I know that adults outside the school are really upset about the new admissions system. I heard they got the Supreme Court involved. I heard that a judge said the system that admitted me is illegal and unfair. That wasn’t fun to hear. But I’m not going to waste my time paying attention to that stuff.

I think TJ needs motivated and passionate kids who care about what they learn at school. And I think kids who want to learn come from everywhere. I don’t care if someone says I don’t belong at TJ. I take it as motivation.

Every day at school, I feel the same thing: I need to rock and roll, because there aren’t a lot of Hispanics here. Anytime I get tired, or doubt what I can do, I tell myself the same thing: I deserve to sit here as long as I’m willing to put in the effort to stay here.

Ershad Sulaiman, 15

My favorite class at TJ is our lab science class, where my classmates and I just finished building a robot that rolls around on little wheels and can find its way through a maze.

It’s great because the teacher lets me be really creative with my designs. I have a lot of ideas, probably because I have a lot of practice playing with electronics. I have a little lab of my own, down in my basement at home, where I fix computers. I also build things, whatever I dream. I go down there almost every night.

It’s also my favorite class because I get to help my classmates. They come to me with questions, and I show them how to do things, like how to attach wheels to a gear train. Some of the kids treat me like I’m an expert or a coach.

I’ve been into computers for about three years. I got interested in the pandemic when my father’s old laptop broke. I spent months fixing it. I learned so much. Computers led me to TJ. I was browsing online when I came across a list of the top 10 schools in America, and there it was. Reading more, I realized the school specialized in STEM.

Early in eighth grade, like everyone with a certain GPA and a difficult course-load, I got an email saying I was qualified to apply to TJ. I filled out the application. There was no test. I had heard that, before my year, you had to take a very difficult test. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad that they removed the test.

On my application essay, I wrote about communication, which I think is the most important skill in the world. If people don’t communicate, on school projects or in life, everyone will be lost in their own way, alone.

My first day at TJ, I couldn’t believe all the fancy technology. I saw a 3D printer and a laser cutter and a big machine that dispenses certain kinds of gases to make chemical reactions. My first few weeks, I was panicking. I had heard a lot about how TJ gives too much homework. And that was true. I had at least two hours every night. But I told myself: This is going to teach you time management. This is going to prepare you for the rest of your life. Things still aren’t easy, but I love what I’m doing and learning.

In one class, I’m studying how copper nitrate affects muscles. In another, we built a rocket simulator. I’ve found best friends in these classes, people who care about communication as much as I do. We talk all the time, at school and on Facebook messenger.

I know there are adults who have a lot of opinions about TJ admissions, but I don’t know much about it. I haven’t been paying attention. I try to focus on school and doing whatever I can to learn new things. I just hope the adults find a way to communicate, too.

Julie Marco, 14

I’ve known I wanted to be a doctor since seventh grade. That year, my science teacher taught me that sometimes, once you understand just one part of something, it causes a whole system to make sense. And then suddenly, you know how the whole human body works. That’s biology, and that’s beautiful.

So when I got an email in eighth grade inviting me to apply to TJ, I decided to go for it. I knew TJ was heavily focused on STEM, and I was excited by the idea of more science education. I had also heard there were a lot more underrepresented minorities at TJ.

My parents are from Egypt, and I live in a very White part of Arlington. Maybe, I thought, I would fit in better at TJ. For my application essay, I wrote about Michelle Obama. I wrote that I aspire to be like her, someone who is able to express themselves in such a way that they do not make themselves look higher or lower than anyone around them.

I didn’t expect to get in. My older sister had applied three years before, and she didn’t get in. I knew I had good grades, but I was intimidated. I had read online that TJ was the top school in the country.

When I got my acceptance, I had to read it over three times. The first two times I didn’t believe it. My first day at TJ, I remember feeling really welcomed by the upperclassmen. I didn’t feel like I was less than anyone else. A bunch of teachers and staff lined up with bells and balloons to say hello, too. It felt like they were saying, “We really want you here.”

Adjusting to TJ hasn’t been too hard. The workload is heavier than in middle school, but it’s not unmanageable. My hardest class is definitely computer science. If you mess up even one tiny letter in the code, the whole thing stops working.

My favorite class is, of course, biology. We’re learning about genetics. I love that you can take just one trait, like brown hair, and trace it back to see when it appeared in a family bloodline and when it disappeared, things like that. The other students all seem like they really want to learn, just like me. That’s one of the best parts about TJ.

My friends and I don’t talk much about the admissions system. I don’t read any of the news about it. And I haven’t looked into it enough to know whether the admissions system actually worsened the quality of students accepted to TJ, like people say.

But I do know that the new admissions process was much less stressful for me. If they had kept the super difficult test they had before, I probably wouldn’t have applied.

Kaiwan Bilal, 14

When one of my friends showed me a four-year planner for TJ back in eighth grade, I got obsessed. I started plotting out which courses I would take each year. My junior year, for example, I was going to enroll in AP Physics, AP Calculus and AP Chemistry.

Of course, since applying and getting in, and making it most of the way through my freshman year, I’ve wound up altering my plans. I’m going to space out some of those AP courses because I don’t want to burn out.

I’m someone who likes to plan ahead, but I can be 100 percent adaptable, too. I can change my mind. Still, I do know a couple things for sure. One is I want to become a chemical engineer. I’ve always liked the idea of combining chemicals. When I was a little kid, I would mix together random substances just to see what would happen.

Another is that I love TJ. It’s even better than I expected, better than my parents told me it would be, when they urged me to apply, even though the school is an hour away from where we live. TJ students are so accepting. I can express myself in a way that I couldn’t in middle school. Everyone says “hi” in the hallway. It’s normal for people to just walk up and compliment your outfit or something, if they like it.

The student body is also so diverse. It seems like we have celebrations for everything. I’ve enjoyed learning about Lunar New Year and about Eid. It’s also nice to see Hispanic students and students who are Black, like me. My Prince William neighborhood is very White.

The TJ campus is very clean, and there are tons of windows. So much sunlight filters in during the day, it’s amazing. I get to school about an hour before class starts, to avoid traffic on Interstate 66, and I love just sitting in the bright common spaces.

When I started at TJ, I went from having basically no homework to having hours every night. But I use a Google Tasks app to track the workload, and that helps a lot. Biology and English are probably the most demanding classes.

Orchestra is my favorite. I play the viola. I love how the TJ orchestra plays really challenging pieces. Right now, we’re working on the second and third and fourth movement of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2.

I have to balance schoolwork with my extracurriculars of orchestra and urban dance and Black Student Union and the private viola lessons I take, as well as serving as president of a public-speaking club and mentoring younger kids through The Future Brighter, a nonprofit organization that helps middle-schoolers gain an interest in STEM.

It’s a lot, and I’m very busy. When I can, I like to relax by doing coding challenges. I haven’t had much free time to follow the debate over the TJ admissions system. I heard that a judge ruled that everyone in my class was admitted to the school on an illegal basis. It doesn’t affect us now, but it affects what TJ will become.

I think TJ was right to get rid of the admissions test because it makes it more fair for everyone. Now, people who can afford to spend thousands of dollars on test prep won’t have an advantage over people who can’t. I think a lot of students agree with me. But the debate seems to be really political now and driven mostly by parents. I don’t think students have been heard very much.