In response to a second allegation that Loudoun systematically discriminates against staff and students of color, the report also points to evidence of racism perpetrated by personnel throughout the Northern Virginia school division of 82,000 — including a math teacher who intentionally marked a Black student’s correct answers wrong and the time a Black student was forced to “reenact being a runaway slave on the underground railroad” during a lesson.
But it stops short of recommending significant changes on this front, because the school division had already acknowledged and begun its own efforts to remedy the situation, as part of a larger “Action Plan to Combat Systemic Racism” debuted over the summer.
“There is reasonable cause to believe that Loudoun County Public Schools’ administration of the Academies of Loudoun program had a discriminatory impact on Black/African-American and Latinx/Hispanic students,” the report states. “We request that Loudoun County Public Schools eliminate its discriminatory practices.”
The attorney general’s office launched its investigation in October 2019 in response to a complaint brought by the Loudoun NAACP. That complaint, filed in May 2019 with the Division of Human Rights, charged the school system was denying Black students a chance to attend the Academies of Loudoun as well as other gifted and talented programs. It also alleged that the Loudoun school system had exhibited a “pattern and practice” of discriminating against students and employees because of their race.
During the course of their 13-month investigation, Virginia officials reviewed personal testimony given by more than 45 parents, students and employees in Loudoun and conducted interviews. They also performed a “quantitative analysis of disparate admissions rates,” according to a letter Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring sent Loudoun officials Thursday.
In a statement Friday, Loudoun spokesman Wayde Byard said the school system is still reviewing the attorney general’s report to “fully understand the asserted reasoning, conclusions and recommendations” laid out in the document.
But, Byard added, Loudoun will continue to work with the Loudoun NAACP to address its concerns.
The school system will keep implementing its larger “Action Plan to Combat Systemic Racism,” which calls for some revisions to the Academies of Loudoun admissions process, as well as trainings for students and staff that are meant to combat racism and promote equity.
“Every individual is valued in Loudoun County Public Schools,” Byard wrote. “LCPS remains committed to creating a safe, empathetic, respectful and supportive learning environment.”
The Loudoun NAACP did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
The determination comes as selective public schools nationwide are facing questions and concerns over their admissions processes, which for decades have led to significant underrepresentation of Black and Hispanic students. The debate, which has roiled places as far apart as San Francisco and New York City, is playing out with special ferocity right next door to Loudoun, in Fairfax County over its flagship STEM school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
That school, known as TJ, has seen single-digit percentages of Black and Hispanic students since it opened in the 1980s. Following national outcry over George Floyd’s killing this summer, a vocal group of alumni and students began lobbying to change TJ’s admissions process — and inspired the superintendent to propose drastic revisions including a “merit-based” lottery system.
That drew intense backlash from sectors of the community, however, and is now in doubt. Superintendent Scott Brabrand is slated to present a revised proposal to the school board soon, and the board is meant to pick an option by the end of the year.
The revisions already enacted or being requested in Fairfax — the elimination of a tough admissions test and teacher recommendation letters, as well as implementation of a lottery system — are nearly identical to changes the Loudoun NAACP would like to see implemented at the Academies of Loudoun, according to the attorney general’s report.
Asked how the county will change admissions at the Academies of Loudoun following the report, Loudoun public schools spokesman Rob Doolittle mentioned alterations the school system was already planning to implement for the 2021-2022 admissions cycle. These include making algebra I, rather than geometry, a prerequisite for applying and reducing the number of critical-thinking and writing tests from four to two.
The two-phase process will also shrink to a one-phase process, and “the selection process [will] take into consideration the principle of geography/socio-economic equity,” according to a document Doolittle provided.
But Loudoun will have other work to do, too: Within 60 days from the publication of the report, it will have to show the attorney general’s office that it has begun engaging with “school community stakeholders,” including the Loudoun NAACP, to “develop policies and procedures to increase the diversity of the applicant pool and the population of admitted students” in gifted and talented programs.
It will also have to submit revised rules for student discipline, updated policies governing race- and religious-based discrimination and improved Equal Employment Opportunity guidance informing hiring, retention and promotion.
The Academies of Loudoun opened in 2018, in what amounted to Loudoun’s bid to create a competitor school to Thomas Jefferson. The school, housed in a $125 million brand-new building on a 119-acre campus in Leesburg, Va., combined three of Loudoun’s most prestigious, competitive academic programs: the Academy of Engineering and Technology, the Academy of Science and the Monroe Advanced Technical Academy.
The admissions system worked as follows: The fall before their first year of high school, eighth-grade hopefuls took a critical-thinking test and an exam that tested their abilities in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. Those who made it through this first round then took a second critical-thinking test, and teachers reviewed candidates’ writing assessments, academic records and letters of recommendation before making a final determination.
Racial disparities were evident from the start, as laid out in the attorney general’s report: In 2018, the first year the school opened, 65 Black students applied to the Academy of Science and the Academy of Engineering and Technology, and just one was accepted into a class of 273 students. In 2019, 68 Black students applied, and five were accepted into a class totaling 283 students.
In both years, White and Asian children together made up the majority of accepted students.
“Disparate impact discrimination in the education system is often evidenced by severe disparities between various demographic groups of students,” the attorney general’s report asserts, referencing this data. “Here, a simple statistical analysis revealed evidence disparities between Black/African-American students and Latinx/Hispanic students as compared to White students and Asian-American students.”
Over the next two years, the report continues, Loudoun officials sought to revise the Academies of Loudoun admissions system to address the issue, in part by altering the writing assessment and adding consideration of socioeconomic background to the review process. But this had little effect: In 2020, 244 Black students applied, and just 10 were admitted. Meanwhile, the representation of Hispanic students — already low — worsened, according to the report.
Investigators with the attorney general’s office further found that the discrimination starts early: Black and Hispanic students are seriously underrepresented in Loudoun’s gifted and talented programs for elementary- and middle-schoolers. In 2019, Black and Hispanic students were 2.6 percent and 6.6 percent of a gifted-and-talented initiative known as SPECTRUM, per the report, despite making up 8 percent and nearly 20 percent of the total Loudoun County student body, respectively.
The report attributes the problem to the way Loudoun has thrown up barriers — some institutional, some individual — that prevent parents of color from “accessing academically rigorous curricula.”
Statements from students and parents “included the following prevalent themes,” the report notes: “resistance from teachers in supporting student enrollment in more rigorous academic programming on the basis of race; failure to inform parents and students of opportunities for more rigorous academic programs . . . and lack of teacher support and mentorship in supporting Black/African-American students’ sense of academic identity.”
The report directs school officials to work with the Loudoun NAACP over the next two months to rectify the situation. Some of the NAACP’s suggestions for improvement, as listed in the report, include eliminating the Academies of Loudoun’s critical-thinking test and writing assessment.
The NAACP also proposes nixing letters of recommendation, “as they can be biased,” and offering admission to “qualifying applicants on a random basis.” The NAACP further suggests establishing a STEM-based elementary after-school and summer program focused on African American studies, setting up after-school affinity groups for young Black students and creating a public charter school devoted to STEM fields, art and African American studies — and “eliminating the historical achievement gap experienced” by Black students in Loudoun.