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After outcry, Fairfax superintendent revises proposal to reform admissions at Thomas Jefferson High School

Parents and students hold a protest near Thomas Jefferson High School in September to demonstrate their disapproval of a proposed reform to the admissions process. (Antonio Martin)
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The superintendent of Virginia’s largest school system has revised his proposal to reform admissions at one of the top public high schools in the nation following parent and alumni outcry, and as the county School Board prepares to vote on the issue.

In mid-September, Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand suggested switching the admissions system at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology from a test-based process to a “merit-based lottery,” a measure meant to boost historically low Black and Hispanic enrollment. Over the weekend, he released a revised plan that calls for 400 of 500 seats in every class to be assigned by random lottery.

The remaining 100 seats will go to the “highest-evaluated students” based on “a holistic review of their application,” according to a presentation Fairfax officials posted online.

How should a premier magnet school boost Black and Latino enrollment? A suggested lottery spurs fierce debate.

Thomas Jefferson (known as TJ), which focuses on STEM and is often ranked No. 1 in public high schools in the country, has for decades seen single-digit percentages of Black and Hispanic students. Over the summer, at the height of the George Floyd protests and after Fairfax released numbers showing less than 10 members of TJ’s Class of 2024 are Black, a vocal group of parents, students and alumni began calling for change.

Brabrand’s proposal came a few months later. The plan eliminates the traditional two-part test, the $100 application fee and teacher recommendation letters. Instead, it allows eighth-graders from five geographical areas to enter a lottery so long as they have a 3.5 GPA, are enrolled in Algebra I and fill out a questionnaire.

While earning accolades from some, the plan also drew swift backlash from other parents, graduates and students who argue that the lottery will reduce the academic quality of the school and force unqualified students into a too-rigorous learning environment.

The revised lottery proposal “should provide some increase in admittance for underrepresented groups,” Brabrand wrote in the presentation posted online, while “[allowing] top performers entry into” TJ.

Members of the Fairfax County’ School Board will discuss the proposal during a work session Tuesday evening. They are slated to take a formal vote on the plan during a regular School Board meeting Thursday.