Under the suggested lottery system, the 100 “highest-evaluated” applicants would earn places at the school, while the remaining 450 seats would be filled through a random lottery of all qualified eighth-graders. Under the “holistic review” proposal, all 550 students would be admitted through the evaluation process.
The Fairfax County School Board is slated to vote and choose an option later this month. The new admissions system will go into effect immediately, for the Class of 2025.
“We know equity and excellence go hand in hand. They are not mutually exclusive,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand said at the presentation Monday. “We know that a diverse student body can enhance the overall educational experience for our students at TJ.”
Thomas Jefferson, known as TJ, consistently is ranked one of the best public schools in the nation. But it is also known for failing to enroll Black and Hispanic students: Since its founding in 1985, TJ has enrolled single-digit percentages of those students.
Community concern, long simmering, rose to a boiling point this summer following nationwide protests of the death of George Floyd and systemic racism. Activism by students, graduates and parents spurred the superintendent to propose a merit-based lottery admissions system in mid-September — at least the ninth attempt by Fairfax officials to alter TJ admissions in the past decade. None of the previous revisions successfully boosted diversity.
Other segments of the county — especially parents of Asian American children, who make up more than 70 percent of TJ students — had a strong reaction. They argued the superintendent’s approach would discriminate against Asian American students, rob deserving and hard-working children of spots at TJ and launch unqualified students into a too-rigorous academic environment.
Backlash from this group, as well as a lack of support from Fairfax board members, led the superintendent to revise his proposal. The board approved portions of his second suggestion, agreeing to eliminate the notoriously difficult TJ admissions test and the $100 application fee, but otherwise told him to go back to the drawing board.
The board directed Brabrand to return near the end of the year with two detailed plans — one involving a lottery and one that did not. As the superintendent and his staff worked away at these, more than a dozen discontented families joined forces in early November to file suit against Fairfax, alleging discrimination against Asian American applicants and seeking to reverse the cancellation of the admissions test.
During the meeting Monday, Brabrand said the high level of interest proves the importance of equity not only in Fairfax but in Virginia and throughout the United States — and indeed, similar debates are playing out at selective magnet schools nationwide.
Much of the discussion centered on the question of teacher recommendations, long a staple of the TJ application process but that Brabrand had suggested eliminating, given they could allow bias to affect proceedings. After several board members advocated for keeping the letters, Brabrand said he was willing to incorporate recommendation letters into either or both of his suggested models for TJ admissions.
The board also discussed whether, under the lottery model, students would be able to deduce whether they numbered among the 100 chosen on merit alone. Some members said they feared this could cause lottery admits to feel unwelcome and insecure, fostering a “toxic culture” at a school known to be highly competitive.
Marty Smith, Fairfax’s chief operating officer, promised that neither students nor their parents would discover this information.
“You would simply get a letter of acceptance,” he said.
TJ Principal Ann Bonitatibus added that she feels confident teachers at the school will create a welcoming space for everyone.
Brabrand and his staff also explained how the school system will advertise TJ’s new admissions program in coming months. Apart from anxiety over the admissions system itself, one of the longest-running concerns in the county has been that Fairfax is failing to reach and identify talented Black and Hispanic students at a young age.
Brabrand said school officials would work with parents, TJ’s PTA Diversity Committee and alumni groups to get news of the school’s updated admissions program to Black and Hispanic families. He also said that Fairfax would partner with “local government agencies and business partners to identify additional outreach opportunities” and that the school system would increase its after-school and summertime STEM programming.
Finally, Brabrand offered metrics by which he will judge the success of his changes: He wants to see the makeup of the student body more closely mirror that of the applicant pool. He also wants to see boosts in the percentage of middle-schoolers who “believe that they belong at TJ,” of TJ parents who feel respected and of students who feel “respected and included” at the magnet school.
“The word of mouth among some student groups is, ‘I’m not welcome there,’ ‘I’m not wanted there,’ ‘I’m not respected there,’ ” he said. “I think either of these two approaches are going to send a clear message: You are welcome. You are wanted. You are respected.”