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After admissions changes, Thomas Jefferson High will welcome most diverse class in recent history, officials say

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., oftens ranks as the top public high school in the nation. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

A previous version of this article incorrectly said Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology considers race as part of its new admissions process. It does not. The article has been corrected.

Prestigious magnet school Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology will welcome the most diverse class of students in recent school history next fall, according to data released Wednesday by Fairfax County Public Schools.

The class will include more Black and Hispanic students than any class admitted in the past four years. It will include fewer Asian students, who have historically made up the vast majority of admitted students, and a larger percentage of female students.

But the biggest jump came in admission offers to economically disadvantaged students, meaning students who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. In previous years, these students accounted for 2 percent or fewer of all children offered spots at Thomas Jefferson, known as TJ. This year, 25 percent of all students receiving offers are economically disadvantaged, according to Fairfax data.

The TJ Class of 2025 is the first to be admitted under a new admissions system approved late last year that asked school staffers to consider applicants’ socioeconomic backgrounds and did away with a long-standing, notoriously difficult admissions test, as well as a $100 application fee. Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand implemented these changes in a bid to boost diversity of all kinds at the school.

In an interview Wednesday, Brabrand hailed the demographics of the Class of 2025 as proof that his admissions revisions worked, after many long years in which previous superintendents tried, and failed, to enact changes with the same goal. The school, which focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, has enrolled disproportionately low percentages of Black and Hispanic students since its founding in 1985.

“We’ve made history with these changes at TJ,” Brabrand said. “We’ve really made real progress after trying for so many years to expand access and opportunity — this year, the data tells the story.”

A Black student tries to change Thomas Jefferson from the inside

The superintendent said he “cannot look into the future” but that based on the success of this year’s admissions cycle, he is “not sure” Fairfax will need to make more changes to the TJ admissions system going forward.

Five hundred fifty offers for spots in the TJ Class of 2025 were set to be delivered to students early Wednesday evening. In previous years, about 480 students received offers — the increase in class size was one of the superintendent’s changes. In a typical year, more than 90 percent of students accept their offers, Fairfax officials said.

Eleven percent of this year’s offers will go to Hispanic students, and 7 percent will go to Black students — both representing significant increases. In the past four years, the percentage of Hispanic students receiving offers hovered between 1 and 5 percent. The percentage of Black students receiving offers hovered between 1 and 2 percent.

Meanwhile, 22 percent of this year’s offers are going to White students — a number that is largely consistent with the past four years, when White students accounted for between 17 and 22 percent of offers extended.

Fifty-four percent of offers are going to Asian students, a marked decrease. In previous years, Asian students have accounted for between 65 and 75 percent of all offers.

The Class of 2025 more closely reflects the demographics of Fairfax County than did previous classes. The county at large was 60 percent White, 10 percent Black, 20 percent Asian and 17 percent Hispanic in 2020, according to Fairfax government data.

Brabrand said the more-representative nature of TJ’s newest class will have everyday benefits as students interact in classrooms, in hallways and on the playing field, learning to understand and love people different from themselves. And, he added, these advantages will persist into students’ professional lives.

“These kids are going to be more equipped, with their diverse backgrounds and stories, to really bring a holistic look at the power of science and technology to improve our country and our world,” he said.

Still, the sharp decline in Asian representation is sure to stoke controversy in the Fairfax school system, a Northern Virginia district of 180,000 located just outside D.C.

Brabrand began studying reforms to TJ admissions last summer, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and nationwide protests against systemic racism — and the issue has divided and roiled the county ever since.

Parents, students and alumni soon split into opposing groups to support or protest the proposed changes. The two groups butted heads at rallies, during school board meetings and in vitriolic social media exchanges. Some parents sued to stop Brabrand from implementing his changes; two lawsuits are ongoing.

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

The parents opposed to the changes, who call themselves the Coalition for TJ, argue that Brabrand’s revisions are explicitly meant to reduce the number of Asian students attending the school, calling the changes discriminatory. The school system has denied this.

In a statement late Wednesday evening, the Coalition for TJ congratulated students admitted to the school but slammed Fairfax officials for the drop in Asian admits. The coalition called the Class of 2025 a culmination of Fairfax’s “crusade” against Asian children.

Fairfax has “broken the hearts of many deserving students,” the coalition wrote on Twitter. “We lament the war on Asians launched by Fairfax County Public Schools.”

Brabrand acknowledged Wednesday that he anticipates criticism over the decline in Asian students in this year’s class of TJ admittances. He noted that a majority of students offered spots in the Class of 2025 are Asian.

“We want to continue to see all of our students from all backgrounds continue to apply to TJ, including Asian students,” Brabrand said. “And they did apply. And they were accepted.”

Another main argument advanced by those opposed to TJ admissions changes was that the superintendent’s revisions would lead to the acceptance of less academically qualified students, driving down the quality of the school. TJ, known in the Washington region for its challenging curriculum, is often ranked the No. 1 public high school in the nation.

Brabrand noted Wednesday that the average GPA of the applicant pool this year, 3.9, was actually higher than in previous years, when it ranged between 3.7 and 3.8. The average GPA of students offered spots in the class, 3.95, was about the same as in the past four years.

The superintendent said TJ will offer this year’s students all the various supports — academic, social, emotional, mental — that the school offered to previous classes. TJ is prepared to give the freshman class additional supports if needed, he said.

But he said he is utterly confident that the admitted class will excel at the school.

“These kids will come fully ready to participate fully and successfully,” Brabrand said.

About 46 percent of offers went to female students this year, an increase from the past four years. Braband said he thinks the bump will help dispel myths about women not being interested in math and science.

Students offered spots in TJ’s Class of 2025 have two weeks to decide whether to take the seats. After that, Fairfax will begin offering spots to the hundreds of applicants who were wait-listed.