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Opinion Thomas Jefferson High School students and parents are fighting changes to admissions standards. Here’s why.

Thomas Jefferson High School admitted fewer than 10 Black students to the class of 2024, sparking outrage and debate among current students and alumni. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Harry Jackson is a founding member of the Coalition 4 TJ, TJ PTSA Diversity Committee Member, retired Naval Officer and NAACP member who works with local organizations to create science, technology, engineering and mathematics enrichment programs for underrepresented minorities.

When then-President Barack Obama was ready to sign the 2011 America Invents Act, a landmark patent reform bill, he chose the perfect backdrop: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) in Alexandria.

Obama’s optimistic speech centered around technological innovation, competition and entrepreneurial opportunity — and TJ, a nationally acclaimed magnet school dedicated to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, was the ideal setting for that message. The school has for decades embodied the best spirit of education for young people with high aspirations, thanks to strong admission standards and a demanding curriculum.

But now Fairfax County educational bureaucrats are gutting those admission standards in a misguided effort to achieve their preferred mix of races in the student body. In response, TJ parents and students are fighting back, filing suit to challenge the weakened admission standards and to protect the school’s long-standing commitment to academic excellence. Here’s why.

TJ was founded in 1985 as a place for gifted and advanced students to reach their fuller potential. Three and a half decades later, we can judge that experiment a success: Last year, U.S. News and World Report ranked TJ the best high school in the nation, and the school’s graduates have scaled to impressive heights of achievement and recognition. Moreover, the student body is notably diverse, with 79 percent coming from a minority background.

But according to state and local education bureaucrats, that last point isn’t good enough — because, as it turns out, the school’s population is made up of “the wrong kind” of minorities: Asian students.

By comparison, relatively small numbers of Black and Hispanic applicants meet TJ’s demanding admission standards, a fact that has long embarrassed Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) officials. To right that perceived wrong, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand moved last fall to water down the standards to ensure more underrepresented minorities make the cut.

Rather than basing admission on applicants’ performance on an objective, race-blind admissions exam centered on merit, Brabrand proposed new standards based on a prospective student’s life experiences and other subjective criteria. This decision was arrived at through an opaque process that failed to engage parents and the TJ community. It was as if Brabrand and his cronies knew the result they wanted, and then set out to get it.

In response, many TJ parents and students protested. When our concerns were dismissed, our only option to protect TJ’s commitment to excellence was to file suit in federal court. We argue that the new subjective race-based admission standards, aimed at achieving a “better” racial balance at TJ, violate the constitutional rights of the school’s Asian students.

To be clear, as an African American father of a TJ student, I would also like to see more Black and Hispanic students at the school. But if those students are not making the grade, the problem isn’t the standards. It’s more likely that the elementary school pipeline is failing to prepare them for the rigors of an environment like TJ. But rather than address their very real failures at preparing underprivileged students, Brabrand and his cronies now seek to gut the admissions standards to get the racial balance they deem appropriate.

I know how hard my son worked to earn admission to TJ, and how hard he’s working now to meet the demands of a challenging and rigorous curriculum. Moreover, his younger sister, now a middle school student, hopes to follow him.

But I tell her she’ll have to work just as hard as he did to earn that privilege — there won’t be any shortcuts or special favors extended to her. Just as there were no shortcuts or favors for my father when he was one of the first Black graduates of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, or when I was admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy. We had to work hard to earn those opportunities, and she will, too.

When I see the effort to water down the admissions standards to TJ — and let’s be clear, that effort is largely led by paternalistic White liberals who are determined to “help” minority victims at any cost — I see it for what it is: a tacit admission that they don’t think Black and Hispanic students have what it takes to compete on merit. That’s not the message my parents gave me; it’s not the message I share with my own children; and it’s not a message we should be sending to other children just to salve our consciences.

Read more:

The Post’s View: A Virginia school shows that racial inequities aren’t confined to the justice system

Jonathan Riehl: What it will take for Thomas Jefferson High School to change

Asra Q. Nomani: An unfair push for racial equality at Thomas Jefferson