“My goal in this school division has always been to meet the needs of every child, by name and by need,” Brabrand wrote in a letter to families. “I pledge to continue to serve through June 30, 2022, with the same love and passion for FCPS that I had when I started. I will work with the School Board to ensure a seamless and smooth leadership transition.”
Brabrand, who earns just over $300,000 a year, inherited a 185,000-student school system in one of the most affluent areas in the country that is known for its consistently strong academic performance.
He did not say in his letter or video message if had professional plans after his departure.
The most tumultuous slice of Brabrand’s tenure came in the past two years, as he led the school system through the coronavirus pandemic and amid nationwide protests over systemic racism that reached into school settings.
Brabrand stumbled in the early stages of the pandemic, when Fairfax — like school systems nationwide — pivoted almost overnight to online learning but saw its online lessons plagued immediately by technological troubles, possible privacy breaches and racist, sexist and violent harassment of students and teachers. The failures led Fairfax to cancel school for about two weeks and ultimately forced the school system’s longtime information technology chief out of her job.
Later in the pandemic, Fairfax drew negative national attention again when the school system reported at the end of the 2020-2021 school year that failing grades had spiked massively during online learning, with the most vulnerable students struggling the most.
But the school system appeared to rally in the next academic year, as Brabrand oversaw the return of nearly half of the student body to in-person learning. Grades improved, too, after the school system adopted adjustments — such as replacing F’s with “No Mark” designations — meant to help compensate students for the difficulties of the pandemic. The superintendent has promised repeatedly that fall 2021 will see all students back in classrooms five days a week, with only children who can prove a medical need allowed to learn remotely. Brabrand will oversee that transition in his last year as superintendent.
But even as some parents’ ire over Fairfax’s handling of remote learning has subsided, the school system has been plunged into another controversy — over the admissions system at its flagship STEM magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, known as TJ. The school, often ranked the best public high school in the United States, has for decades admitted extremely low percentages of Black and Hispanic students.
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, alumni and student frustration with decades of poor representation boiled over — and Brabrand took action to reform the admissions process. He eliminated a $100 application fee, nixed a rigorous admissions test and directed TJ’s admissions officers to consider applicants’ “experience factors,” such as socioeconomic status, during the admissions process. The changes, the latest in a long line of reform attempts, led to the most diverse admitted freshman class in the school’s recent history. That group, the Class of 2025, will start at TJ in the fall.
But the revisions also provoked a fierce backlash, with parents — especially those of Asian students — alleging the changes amount to racist discrimination against Asian Americans and are meant to cut down the number of Asian American students. The class did see a drop in Asian representation, with the percentage of Asian students shrinking to about 50 percent from roughly 70 percent the year earlier.
Fairfax now faces two lawsuits over its TJ admissions reforms, filed by angry parents. The opposition to TJ admissions changes has also lately merged into a larger campaign against “critical race theory,” which some parents claim is spurring race-conscious equity initiatives, such as the TJ reforms, that they view as racially motivated and divisive.
In an interview in June, Brabrand defended his admissions changes.
“We’ve made history with these changes at TJ,” Brabrand said. “We’ve really made real progress after trying for so many years to expand access and opportunity — this year, the data tells the story.”