Black and Hispanic students have long been underrepresented in the elementary advanced academic program in Fairfax County, which puts students on track for college preparatory work and is crucial for those who aspire to attend Northern Virginia's premier magnet high school.
An Associated Press investigation, published Saturday, reveals part of the problem: Despite universal screening for gifted programs, black and Hispanic families are far less likely than white and Asian counterparts to appeal when their children are deemed ineligible, a process that often means shelling out $500 or more for a psychologist to reevaluate a child.
The result? Of the 1,737 second-graders admitted through the appeals process over the last decade, fewer than 50 were black and Hispanic. Black and Hispanic students constituted 12 percent of those deemed eligible for the highest academic classes in Fairfax County over the last decade, according to the AP.
Judith Howard, who chairs a committee that advises the school board on minority student issues, told The Post the panel has long worried about underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students in advanced academic programs.
"This is the same thing that we've been after the school system about for years, decades," Howard said. "People don't know how to navigate the system."
Francisco Durán, the school system's chief academic and equity officer, said Saturday the school system has sought to increase access to gifted programs for students of color and disadvantaged students.
The Young Scholars program, in 84 elementary schools, targets disadvantaged students with after-school activities and summer school to boost their chances of getting into a gifted program, an attempt to offer them the same opportunities that wealthier families can afford. Fairfax County also screens all students, while other districts tend to rely on referrals from parents and teachers, which research shows gives an edge to better-off white students.
But Durán said it is impossible to erase all the advantages some children might have, from after-school enrichment to high-priced psychological evaluations to a network of in-the-know parents who can advise them on the process.
"One thing that we've done to level the playing field . . . is to provide more extended learning opportunities for students who don't have those opportunities," he said. "But it's very difficult to control for all of those things."
Their efforts to increase minority representation have fallen short. A report prepared by Howard's panel — the Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee — found that black and Hispanic students make up just 13 percent of participants in the Level IV Advanced Academic Program, even though they constituted 35 percent of the student body overall in the 2015-2016 school year.
Howard said the committee believes the selection process is too subjective.
"Like student discipline and like teacher hiring, anytime there's subjectivity in the process, there's a disparate impact on black and Hispanic students and teachers," Howard said.
Reducing such barriers is considered crucial to help widen access to the selective Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, where less than 4 percent of students are black or Hispanic.
School board member Dalia Palchik said the school system needs to do a better job of ensuring that all parents understand how the appeals process works.
"That's been a concern of mine, the lack of equity in that process," Palchik said.
It is in the appeals process that black and Hispanic students really fall behind. Families have the right to appeal if the selection committee rejects their children. But they have to provide new information — often, a test administered by an outside psychologist. That is costly. The AP found black and Hispanic families rarely take advantage of that process.
Howard said plenty of black and Hispanic families in Fairfax could afford to hire a psychologist. But they may not be aware of how to successfully mount an appeal.
The county school system also has been challenged by the underrepresentation of black teachers in its workforce. A George Mason University study last year found black applicants were far less likely to get hired than white ones, despite having similar qualifications. White principals were also far less likely to hire black applicants than their black colleagues. Researchers concluded that racial bias played a role in the hiring process.