The changes take effect immediately, meaning this year’s crop of eighth-graders — many of whom have spent months, if not years, preparing for the test — will not sit down this fall to take the two-part exam on math, reading and science.
But the board did not take action on a more controversial part of the superintendent’s proposal: his suggestion that Fairfax assign 400 of 500 spots in TJ’s classes by a “merit-based lottery.” That strategy, meant to boost the number of Black and Hispanic students after decades of extremely low enrollment, would allow any students from five geographical areas to enter a lottery for seats at the school, provided they meet certain academic qualifications: a 3.5 GPA and enrollment in Algebra I.
At the meeting Thursday, Brabrand vowed he would debut an altered plan to the board by November.
“We will be presenting a revised admissions process to you all,” he said, adding that he looks forward to it.
The board also voted on a major change to operations at TJ: It is asking the superintendent to develop a plan for a “regional governing board” for the high school, comprising “proportionate representation” from all the school boards that typically send students to the school. The new board will be responsible for ensuring that Thomas Jefferson adheres to Virginia Board of Education regulations.
The lottery proposal spurred controversy from the moment Brabrand introduced it on Sept. 15. He promised it would cause TJ’s student body — which is more than 70 percent Asian and about 20 percent White, with single-digit percentages of Black and Hispanic students — to more closely resemble the demographics of Fairfax County.
At a lengthy and contentious public work session on the plan Tuesday night, two days before Thursday’s meeting, several school board members said they were concerned by the idea of a lottery. Some worried it would undermine the mission of TJ, which is supposed to serve as a school for especially gifted children who are passionate about science, technology, engineering and math.
“The public has every right to be concerned about what you’ve outlined here,” board member Megan McLaughlin said of the lottery at one point, addressing Brabrand directly.
The board members’ comments echo larger frustrations shared by some students, alumni and parents. Opponents say a lottery system will rob deserving children of spots at the prestigious school, which is often ranked the No. 1 public high school in the country. They also say it will force unqualified children into an academic environment that is too rigorous and will ultimately drive down TJ’s academic rating.
Several parents who spoke at the board meeting Thursday reiterated these reservations. Fairfax father Glenn Miller warned that a lottery system “will damage TJ academically.” Another parent, Julia McCaskill, said a lottery “trashes the meaning of hard work.”
“The quality of TJ will be negatively affected,” said Thomas Jefferson junior Swesik Ramineni, adding that the influx of lottery-chosen children would mean high-level courses have to be discontinued in favor of “more remedial classes.”
Still, proponents of the superintendent’s proposal are just as vehemently committed to the idea.
Even if Brabrand’s suggestions are imperfect, they say, change is long overdue. TJ was founded in 1985 and has struggled to admit Black and Hispanic students, even as a long string of administrators attempted changes to the admissions process.
Brabrand made a similar argument at the Tuesday work session.
“We must change the status quo,” he said. “It has been decades and decades with no gains in the diversity of the admitted class at Thomas Jefferson.”
On Thursday, a series of parent, alumni and student speakers agreed with him.
Brandon Kim, an Asian American TJ alum, said everyone must accept the fact that TJ has a serious “demographics and pipeline problem.” A lottery, he argued, would level the playing field immediately — even though the system may have some flaws.
“The time for change is now or we will continue to have this conversation for another 35 years,” he said. “The perfect should not be the enemy of the good today.”
Dinan Elsyad, a 17-year-old TJ senior, spoke last during the public comment period. Elsyad, who is Black and experienced racism during her years at TJ, said she was deeply hurt to see other students and parents argue that a merit-based lottery system would decrease the academic quality of TJ and its students.
“Do you really need me to sit here and prove to you that . . . students who look like me will not dumb down TJ?” Elsyad asked. Then she spoke directly to the school board: “You were elected to make the tough choices. Please do right by the students.”