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Fairfax County School Board directs superintendent to develop a more equitable ‘talent development’ program for Thomas Jefferson High School

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, often ranked the nation’s No. 1 public high school, has long struggled to enroll Black and Hispanic students. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The Fairfax County Public Schools board voted to ask the superintendent to develop an equitable talent identification program for the Northern Virginia district’s flagship magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

The vote Thursday night, which took place after more than a dozen parents and students spoke for and against suggested changes to Thomas Jefferson’s highly selective admissions process, was unanimous. It follows several contentious months of debate over the fate of TJ, as the school is known in the Washington area. TJ is often ranked the top public high school in the country, but it has long struggled to enroll Black and Hispanic students.

The school board directed Superintendent Scott Brabrand to “establish a plan for student talent development” that will help “address the systemic issues that impact diversity at TJ.” As part of a lengthy motion, the board also suggested several concrete steps the superintendent could take as part of that plan, including conducting an analysis of math and science curriculums, as well as extracurricular STEM opportunities available to students throughout the school system of 189,000.

“The ideas presented in this motion come from several years of recommendations” from staffers, teachers and parents, said Fairfax board member Tamara Derenak Kaufax (Lee), who co-authored the motion. It “will begin the needed work to get to the systemic issues.”

One of the few Black students at TJ is leading the push to diversify the student body

Later at the same meeting, the board also voted to ask Brabrand to develop a plan to return some students to brick-and-mortar classrooms on an earlier timeline than he had suggested at a prior meeting. Specifically, they directed him to consider ways to return third-through-sixth-graders earlier than Jan. 4 and high school students earlier than Feb. 1.

Many of the steps the board suggested to the superintendent Thursday night focused on the Advanced Academic Program (AAP), the district’s gifted-track learning program widely viewed as the path to TJ. Some have raised alarms about AAP in recent years, warning that it is likely — given the program tests first- and second-graders to identify whether they qualify as gifted — that the program is fostering deep-seated inequity in the education system.

At such an early age, critics of the system say, children are a product of the resources and funds their parents can provide — meaning that the population able to participate in AAP earns that opportunity as a result of socioeconomic circumstances, not actual intellect or academic ability.

Black and Latino students constituted just 18 percent of the highest-level AAP classes in the 2019-2020 school year. For decades, Black and Hispanic students have made up single-digit percentages of the student body at TJ.

The motion Thursday suggested Brabrand could strengthen “the equity of access” to AAP by debuting professional training for all classroom teachers on “advanced programs pedagogy,” installing “advanced academic resource” teachers in all elementary schools and developing a better communications plan to inform all Fairfax families about AAP.

Such a communications push would “help parents understand how their children can benefit from participation in AAP,” the motion reads, “and invest in family engagement to facilitate participation of historically underrepresented students in advanced academic programs.”

But the motion left the superintendent with wide latitude to develop his own version of a talent identification program. His plan, the motion says, “may include” but is not “limited” to the board’s suggestions.

“A great resolution,” Brabrand said just before the vote. “I fully support.”

Still, the school board made clear Thursday that a new talent identification plan is only one of many steps Fairfax officials must and will take to revise the TJ admissions process as a whole. The superintendent in mid-September had proposed switching the test-based process — which is conducted in two parts, lasts for months of eighth grade and is highly selective, with an acceptance rate that typically clocks in around 19 percent — to a merit-based lottery.

Under the superintendent’s proposal, all students with a 3.5 grade-point average and Algebra I experience who filled out a comprehensive questionnaire would have been eligible for the lottery. But that proposal — although earning acclaim from some TJ students and alumni — drew strong opposition from many families in Fairfax, who argued that a lottery system would force unqualified children into an overly rigorous academic environment and ultimately drive down the premier school’s high rating, while robbing hard-working and talented applicants of their rightful spots at TJ.

At a contentious board meeting in early October, the school board threw cold water on the superintendent’s suggestion. They voted to approve smaller tweaks to the admissions system, greenlighting changes including the elimination of the TJ test, removal of the $100 application fee and an increase in TJ’s class size.

But they directed the superintendent to go back to the drawing board and return in November with a new plan to restructure TJ’s admissions system. He could suggest another lottery-based program, but he also had to propose a non-lottery system, per the board’s vote.

After outcry, Fairfax superintendent revises proposal to change admissions at TJ

On Thursday, Derenak Kaufax took pains to reassure watching parents and students that the board still intends to enact dramatic change to the TJ admissions process.

She said her motion “shall not impact or slow down the immediate need” to overhaul admissions.

“This is by no means saying the board is any less committed to, in this year, making positive changes,” added board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock). She said officials must make TJ “more reflective and representative of our community.”

Several hours before the vote, which took place close to 10 p.m., 15 parents and students signed up to participate in the public comment section of the meeting. Fourteen of 15 speakers used their time to address TJ admissions.

The debate over TJ has stirred strong emotions in Northern Virginia, and the depth of the divide was evident Thursday night. Several parents had harsh words for Brabrand and his suggested lottery.

Asian American father James Pan of Fairfax called proposals to change TJ “government-sponsored discrimination against Asians.” Another Asian parent, Vinson Palathingal, called Brabrand a “closet racist” whose actions regarding TJ have proved he is prejudiced against Asians.

Asian American mother Stacy Zhu lamented the effect the TJ debate has had on Fairfax’s Asian community. “We are labeled as privileged test-preppers and discriminators,” she said.

Fairfax school board eliminates admissions test at TJ

A White parent, Helen Miller, lambasted the board for agreeing to eliminate the $100 application fee. She asked how Fairfax officials would make up the loss of that revenue, given thousands of students typically apply to the school each year, before offering her own plan: She held up a sign reading, “Fire Brabrand.”

The superintendent did have some supporters.

Akshay Deverakonda, who said he graduated from TJ in 2011, spoke at length about what he called an under-considered problem with TJ’s admissions system: Girls apply in smaller numbers and are accepted in smaller numbers than their male counterparts.

“This isn’t about being Asian,” Deverakonda said. “The current admissions process harms Asian girls, too.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report misspelled Akshay Deverakonda’s first name.