When Christine Contreras-Slaughter saw the asterisks, she thought of her children.

She was staring at enrollment data for the Class of 2024 at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the Northern Virginia magnet school that often ranks as the top public high school in the United States and Contreras-Slaughter’s alma mater: She graduated in 2007 as one of a small handful of Latino students.

Now, she peered closer at the box revealing the number of black students admitted to the incoming freshman class. “**TS,” it read — “numbers that are too small for reporting.”

Contreras-Slaughter, 31, who married a black man and whose children are black and Latino, felt sick.

“It was just another reminder that, even though we’re in the year 2020,” Contreras-Slaughter said, “my children were born into a society that does not value them, and does not see them.”

Fairfax County Public Schools published the data on its website in early June, just as the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd were beginning to thunder throughout America. That confluence of events has fueled a seismic reckoning over racism, student body demographics and the admissions process at the school — which, like other magnet schools, has long been notorious for failing to admit black and Latino students.

Over the past month, Thomas Jefferson students and alumni have taken to social media and the pages of the student newspaper to share their encounters with racism. Many were speaking out hesitantly, for the first time, worried their words would earn them the label of “complainers” but convinced the moment demanded their voices.

Students are also signing up in droves for campus groups including the Student Diversity Initiative. Five high-schoolers are finessing a proposal, destined for the school board, that in part suggests revamping admissions.

An alumni Facebook action group, formed in 2016 to help boost the diversity of the school, swelled from roughly 100 members to more than 800 in days. Buoyed by the new recruits, the group has divided into seven committees and is tackling issues from the notoriously exclusive application process to the culture that pervades school hallways.

“I think TJ can be a model for change, precisely because of its reputation as the number one public school in the U.S.,” said Ruth Metzel, a white alumna, Class of 2006, who is helping with the efforts. “It could and should reflect a vision for the future of the county.”

But backlash is swirling, too, from students, graduates and parents who argue that adjusting the admissions process will lower the school’s standards.

Contreras-Slaughter fits her work for the alumni group around her duties as a D.C. teacher, and around the therapy sessions she said she still attends to process the trauma from her high school years, when classmates regularly implied she did not deserve to be there.

She has never seen this level of engagement before, which at once thrills and disappoints her. Why are her white peers just noticing the problems now?

“Maybe enough people are speaking up that it will be impossible to let this continue,” Contreras-Slaughter said. “But I don’t know. The problem is so deep.”

And she is still certain: Her children will never attend Thomas Jefferson High.

'Equity gap' spans decades

There are 486 students in Thomas Jefferson’s incoming freshman class. Seventy-three percent are of Asian heritage, and slightly more than 17 percent are white. There are 16 Hispanic students, equivalent to roughly 3 percent of the incoming class.

The exact number of black students is unclear. The asterisk on the data set indicates the number is fewer than 10, and the chart gives the percentage as “N/A,” or “Not Applicable.” But a Fairfax County Public Schools spokeswoman refused to provide the true figure, citing privacy concerns.

Thomas Jefferson’s principal, Ann Bonitatibus, said in an interview that she received a flurry of outreach from students and alumni after the data came out: People offered thoughts and solutions, eager to critique and to carve a path forward. Although she has no power over the admissions process, she is working to make connections between emailers, and to the mentor students brainstorming fixes.

Bonitatibus took the job as principal three years ago partly because of the school’s reputation for a lack of diversity: She thought she could help improve it. Now it feels like the best chance has come.

“All students who have a passion for STEM should feel like they could potentially be a student at TJ,” Bonitatibus said. “I’m looking forward to this being a community effort.”

For her part, she began with a recent letter to families that acknowledged the school’s disappointing demographics.

“We do not reflect the racial composition in FCPS,” Bonitatibus wrote. “Our 32 black students and 47 Hispanic students fill three classrooms. If our demographics actually represented FCPS, we would enroll 180 black and 460 Hispanic students, filling nearly 22 classrooms.”

The most recent admissions cycle, she added, “does not close the equity gap.”

That gap stretches back decades: The percentage of black and Latino students has hovered in the single digits since at least the 2000s. In emails, alumni recalled being the only black or Latino student in their graduating classes in the 1990s.

In 2012, the NAACP leveled a complaint against Fairfax County Public Schools, alleging Thomas Jefferson was systematically shutting out black and Latino students. That same year, the school gained national notoriety — and stirred outrage from local black activists — after it elected a white student to lead the school’s Black Student Union.

Many believe the problem starts in elementary school. That is when Fairfax administers a test to determine whether first- and second-grade students qualify for the Advanced Academic Program (AAP), a gifted-track learning program that many parents view as the path to Thomas Jefferson.

Lisa Raj Singh, a senior at Thomas Jefferson, is one of the students working on the proposal for the school board. She is researching the real value of gifted programs, collating data and findings from scientific papers.

“At that age, students are a product of the time and resources their parents were able to invest in them,” said Raj, 16. “For example, did students’ parents teach them to read? Take them to the library? Could they afford to send them to fancy STEM summer camps?”

Black and Latino students comprised just 18 percent of the highest-level AAP classes in the 2019-2020 school year. Raj’s proposal will suggest shifting the program’s start date to middle school, as well as expanding initiatives that pair student tutors with kids in under-resourced communities.

Raj and co-writers Tiffany Ji, 17, Sean Nguyen, 16, Didi Elsyad, 17, and Gurleen Kaur, 17, are also targeting the Thomas Jefferson admissions test, which every fall grills eighth-graders on their math, reading and science. A second sitting in the winter requires children to write timed responses to essay questions, typically including one that asks why they want to attend the school.

The test — which is open to students across Fairfax and the surrounding counties — is supposedly race-blind. But the twinned influence of socioeconomic status and racial background is even more stark in this testing process, students and alumni said. Families who can afford private tutoring or prep classes have a massive leg up, said Nguyen.

He received exactly that boost. From an early age, he heard his parents — clued in by a large network of Asian American families — talk about Thomas Jefferson as if it were the holy grail. By the time eighth grade rolled around, Nguyen was attending “TJ Prep” classes that offered him textbooks and hours of coaching on how to ace the admissions test. Programs like these cost an average of $2,100 each year, according to the Thomas Jefferson student newspaper.

Almost all of Nguyen’s prep classmates, he noticed, were white or Asian American.

“Because of all this prep and the behind-the-scenes work of my parents, I was able to succeed,” Nguyen said. “Unlike others who didn’t go through the pipeline.”

In their school board proposal, Raj, Ji, Nguyen, Elsyad and Kaur plan to suggest that Fairfax officials reweight the admissions process so that evaluators rely less on scores and extracurriculars and more on in-person interviews and teacher recommendations. The fivesome also plan to argue students’ socioeconomic and racial backgrounds should be factored into the process. They hope to submit their proposal within the next month, after seeking feedback from peers.

Alumni, meanwhile, are discussing proposals ranging from “geographic percentages” to a version of affirmative action, said Anant Das, a 2015 graduate. The group is also exploring initiatives that could improve the school’s culture, such as anti-racism trainings.

The notion of affirmative action is especially contentious, he said, and the group is divided over the path forward. Still, the debates, many of them intergenerational, are exciting.

“There are current students, recent alums, members of Gen Z, millennials, older millennials, all coming together,” Das said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen that happen on Facebook.”

Fairfax’s top brass may be starting to pay attention. Admissions office staffers are in communication with the alumni group, according to Fairfax County Public Schools spokeswoman Kathleen Thomas. And the superintendent’s office is considering revisions to the Thomas Jefferson admissions policy, which was last updated in 2013.

“We recognize that the diversity numbers are unacceptable,” Thomas said, “and need to be addressed in a comprehensive way.”

Speaking out

Rahel Selemon, 16, never used to talk about being the only black student in most of her classes at Thomas Jefferson. The one time she tried, the conversation went sideways. Fast.

Selemon’s friend, who was white, complained that she felt like Asian American classmates always acted as if she was less smart, less deserving of her spot at Thomas Jefferson. Selemon asked her to imagine how it felt to be a black student.

“She didn’t take it so well,” Selemon said.

Selemon clammed up after that — until the Class of 2024 statistic came out, and the Floyd protests, and when she saw so many black and Latino graduates sharing their own stories.

So Selemon opened up, too. She talked about her freshman orientation, when a white teacher told her she should avoid taking pre-calculus her first year and instead retake Algebra II. Seconds later, the same teacher told an Asian-American boy who’d been standing behind Selmon in line — and who apparently had the same credentials — that he should sign up for pre-calculus.

Selemon went home fuming. That evening marked the first time she and her father sat down to talk about race.

Her dad, a graduate of two Ivy League schools, said he’d dealt with this kind of treatment often in his academic life. He warned her she should expect the same, possibly worse, as a black woman.

Ever since, Selemon has walked through Thomas Jefferson’s hallways determined to show everyone that she belongs. She has selected the hardest classes, studied for hours on weekends and sought perfect grades.

“It’s excelling, not even just being average, but working to be above average so you earn basic respect from your peers and teachers,” Selemon said.

Telling her story, she was thrilled to find a receptive audience among alumni on Facebook. She was less pleased with some of her peers. Especially with the arguments posted in an anonymous online forum known as “TJ Vents.”

“It’s evident that Asians clearly value education very highly, while on the other hand, blacks and Hispanics value other things like music and sports,” one student wrote.

“It’s unfortunate that minorities are underrepresented in STEM, it really is,” wrote another, “but there is nothing unfair about it.”

And a third, which hit Selemon like a sucker-punch: “I am completely okay with the fact that no blacks are attending TJ next year. . . . It’s not that blacks are being discriminated against, it’s that blacks just don’t want to go to TJ or don’t want to put in the effort to prepare to go to TJ.”

At first, she tried to respond to every post, correcting misconceptions, referencing her personal experiences and reminding classmates of the historical context of centuries of oppression.

But she got tired. She stopped going online. It’s better, she decided, to focus her energy on reforging the admissions system — and outworking her classmates.

“It’s bigger than me,” she said. “I’m doing this for the younger black students.”