Jonathan Riehl was a class officer for the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology class of 1994. A former reporter and speechwriter, he is an assistant professor of communications at Wake Tech in Raleigh, N.C.

Thirty years ago, I was admitted to the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which students call “TJ.” There I was, surrounded by overachievers at the place that had recently been on the cover of U.S. News and World Report as the best high school in the nation. I found my niche in student government and served as vice president and president in my four years.

I was acutely aware back then that there was a major problem with how my classmates did not reflect the reality of multicultural life in Fairfax County. It was personal: My younger brother and sister, both close to me in age, soon enrolled at then-J.E.B. Stuart, where my mom would serve as PTA president and took on the mission to revitalize what was then a school struggling to stay afloat, facing challenges on seemingly every front in part because of drastic changes in demographics. My mother took it on as a crusade to turn that school around, and she did, with the help of the administration and many others in the community. It wasn’t long before my siblings’ school was on the cover of National Geographic precisely for the strength of its diversity — perhaps the most diverse in the nation.

Talk about a study in contrast: My relatively homogenous, bizarre bubble of National Merit semifinalists was 10 minutes from our house in one direction. Stuart was 10 minutes in the other. But the schools might just as well have been on different planets. It’s been 30 years, but from what I’ve learned from current and alumni student leaders at TJ, nothing much has changed. In fact, it’s gotten worse, as recently chronicled in this newspaper’s own reporting.

TJ has become more surreal than it was in my day, utterly unrepresentative of the diversity of Fairfax County or the country it purports to model. I knew 30 years ago that this needed to change, because we discussed it at my family dinner table. Three decades later, the same entrenched forces of over-competitive, overzealous parents and bureaucracy stand in the way of what my successors in the student leadership are trying to change: Who gets the privilege of a TJ diploma, with its guarantee of college admission. The situation is a case study in inequity, a physical manifestation of institutionalized privilege. It must change.

We rarely talked about the problems of diversity back in my time, in part because we didn’t have the vocabulary of “structural racism,” in part because maybe “we” weren’t really talking to everyone. But, as a class officer, I had plenty of conversations with our principal, Geoff Jones, about this issue and what stood in the way of making the TJ experience more “normal,” as I recall him often putting it.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that no single experience better mirrors American life than four years in high school. But not my high school. TJ was an imperfect experiment: a wondrous laboratory of learning but also a pressure cooker of competition whose temperature has now burst the thermometer. Back then, despite my position of leadership and my vibrant circle of friends, I often envied my brother and sister because of what they were experiencing and I was not: an introduction into the American life that Vonnegut had in mind.

I came out of TJ socially stunted in many ways but hyper-prepared in others. Three decades later, I don’t have any answers, but I do have a somewhat unique perspective given my family’s experience. Stuart, now Justice High School, was ahead of the curve. TJ is still behind it.

For all intents and purposes, certainly in terms of the admissions process, TJ functions like an elite university, complete with a prep-center industry. I wouldn’t stand a chance at getting admitted today, for sure. I would have gone to Stuart, now rightfully renamed after a righteous idea rather than a traitor who fought to uphold slavery, and I would have succeeded, like my brother and sister, in part thanks to our mom’s relentlessness.

For TJ to become more reflective of the community it serves, to truly be a beacon of American education, its processes and policies have to change. That is the work — and it will take work — of the school board, the administrators, the community and the student leaders, whose efforts I support with the benefit of hindsight and without reservation.

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