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Fairfax school board switches to ‘holistic review’ admissions system for Thomas Jefferson High School

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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The Fairfax County Public Schools board voted Thursday to adopt a “holistic review” for admissions to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a revision meant to boost diversity at the top-tier magnet school and that ends months of fraught and fiery debate.

The school board had previously backed a plan to scrap a long-standing admissions test for the school, known as TJ.

Under the new rules, Fairfax will first identify all eighth-graders who meet certain academic criteria: those who achieve an unweighted GPA of at least 3.5 while taking Algebra I or a higher-level math class, in addition to math and science honors courses and either an English or social studies honors course.

Qualified eighth-graders will be invited to complete a math or science problem-solving essay, as well as a “Student Portrait Sheet.” Fairfax staffers will review these, taking into account “experience factors” including whether students are low-income, have special needs or come from households that do not speak English.

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Ultimately, 550 middle-schoolers will receive offers each year to attend the prestigious STEM school, which is often ranked the No. 1 public high school in the nation. In a bid to ensure geographical diversity, a certain number of seats will be allotted to every middle school in Fairfax County, to be filled by eighth-graders at that school who meet criteria.

“The admissions process must use only race-neutral methods that do not seek to achieve any specific racial or ethnic mix, balance, or targets,” reads the motion approved by the Fairfax school board Thursday night.

The changes will take effect with students entering Thomas Jefferson next fall, or this year’s crop of eight-graders.

The holistic review process replaces an old structure that asked interested students to sit for a two-part, much-feared and rigorous exam in the fall and winter of their eighth-grade year. The school board voted in October to eliminate that test, as well as a $100 application fee.

The revised admissions process is the most radical change that TJ has seen since its founding in 1985, although school officials have made other adjustments at least eight times over the past decade.

Every time, the goal was diversity: TJ has enrolled single-digits percentages of Black and Hispanic students throughout its history. Early in its history, TJ was majority White; in more recent years, it has become majority Asian, with a significant White contingent. (The 2019-2020 student body was 70 percent Asian and 20 percent White.)

Discontent over the demographics of the student body at TJ has been simmering for years, especially among Black and Hispanic residents of Fairfax County. But it burst into public view this summer following the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd and against systemic racism. Those demonstrations coincided with Fairfax’s publication of data for TJ’s Class of 2024, which revealed that fewer than 10 Black students had been admitted.

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The twin events spurred some students, alumni and parents to form an advocacy arm, the TJ Alumni Action Group, and begin lobbying the superintendent and school board for far-reaching change. In mid-September, Fairfax Superintendent Scott Brabrand suggested switching TJ’s admissions to a “merit-based lottery” that would have allotted seats randomly among a pool of eighth-graders who met academic criteria including a 3.5 GPA.

That proposal sparked furious backlash from other students, alumni and parents, who formed their own action group, the Coalition for TJ. They argued a lottery would deprive hard-working, deserving children of seats at TJ, force unqualified students into a too-rigorous academic environment and drive down TJ’s stellar national rating.

When the school board formally voted to eliminate the TJ admissions test and the application fee in early October — as a first step toward overhauling the application process — some parents affiliated with the coalition sued Fairfax’s superintendent and school board, alleging discrimination against Asian American applicants and seeking to reinstate the test.

In late November, Brabrand presented two final options for TJ’s admissions to the school board: One proposal involved a modified merit-based lottery, under which the 100 “highest-evaluated” applicants would earn spots at TJ, while the remaining 450 seats would be allocated through a lottery. The second proposal was the “holistic review” system that received a greenlight from the school board on Thursday.

The board stipulated a few tweaks, however.

In the superintendent’s original conception, the holistic review pathway would have achieved geographic diversity by relying on a “cap” system that allotted a certain number of seats to different regions of Fairfax County, as well as to Loudoun County, Arlington, Falls Church and Prince William County, all of which — in a unique arrangement — are allowed to send students to the magnet school.

But the system greenlighted on Thursday instead takes a school-by-school approach. Per the school board’s explicit instructions, the superintendent must ensure that the top 1.5 percent of eighth-graders at every public middle school who meet the newly enshrined TJ academic standards are “eligible for admission.”

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As one of the first in a flurry of “follow-on” motions to their central vote, school board members also stipulated that Fairfax must offer all eligible eighth-graders the chance to complete the TJ problem-solving essay in a proctored sitting at their particular middle school — a rule meant to help ensure everyone has access to the TJ application process. Students who meet academic criteria, but do not wish to apply to TJ, can opt out of the essay if they choose.

The board then voted to require that the superintendent deliver an annual report to school board members detailing the diversity of TJ’s admitted class that year, attrition rates and data on student “participation in enrichment clubs.” The report must be presented during a public meeting, and it must also feature input from the school system’s chief equity officer and the Minority Student Achievement Committee.

School board members noted both the strong feelings among Fairfax residents about TJ admissions and the historic nature of their adopted alterations during Thursday’s meeting.

Early in the evening, some board members tried to advocate for the lottery system, even introducing a motion in its favor.

“If we are truly serious about doing anti-racism-type work on this board, I hope that we will embrace opportunities like this,” board member Karen Keys-Gamarra (At Large) said of the lottery. “[This would be] a true departure from business as usual.”

But the pro-lottery faction garnered only four supporters, out of a 13-member board (that includes one non-voting member), and so the motion failed.

Afterward, board members who voted against the lottery said they knew some of their constituents would be devastated by the final nixing of that proposal. The suggested lottery had inspired a fervent following among some Fairfax residents, especially among young Black students.

“For those of you who wanted more on this tonight … I look forward to continuing this work,” said board member Melanie K. Meren (Hunter Mill). “Not only on TJ … but in all the ways we can dismantle racism and increase access [for] students from all walks of life.”

Other board members spoke specifically to parents, alumni and students on the other side of the debate: those who say the changes to TJ’s admissions are unfairly targeting Asian students and fear that the revisions will ruin the school.

“I know this has been an emotional issue,” said Vice Chair Tamara Derenak Kaufax (Lee). “Please know that it is not our desire to destroy TJ.”

Kaufax said she knows the community feels polarized and angry. She said she wished there could have been time for more discussion and more outreach to Fairfax families. She called the system approved Thursday an imperfect solution.

Will it bring about the hoped-for changes? “Time will tell,” Kaufax said.