|Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology [Keith Pham]|
Admissions would be based on a “merit lottery,” and the admissions test would be dropped.
TJHSST is one of the most prestigious public high schools in the country, has state-of-the-art labs and computer equipment, and puts many graduates on a path to the country’s top universities.
While it is located in Mason District, very low percentages of students from Mason District middle schools gain access to TJ.
Among semifinalists for the TJ Class of 2019, 61 percent were Asian, 28 percent were white, 5 percent were two or more races, 4 percent were Hispanic, and 2 percent were Black. Within that group, 1.6 percent were economically disadvantaged, and 4.1 percent were English language learners.
The breakdown for the FCPS student population in fall 2019 was 38 percent white, 27 percent Hispanic, 19.5 percent Asian, 10 percent Black, and 6 percent two or more races. English language learners make up 27.4 percent of FCPS students, and 29.3 percent are economically disadvantaged.
More than half of the students offered admission to TJ’s Class of 2020 come from just six middle schools; none of those schools are in Mason District.
Related story: Very few black students accepted to TJ
Brabrand’s proposal would eliminate the admissions test, which he says “tends to reflect upon the socioeconomic background of test takers or the ability for students to obtain private test preparation instead of students’ true academic potential.” The admissions test “can discourage potential candidates from applying or advancing to the pool of semifinalists.”
Brabrand would also eliminate the $100 application fee, the assessment percentile ranking, teacher recommendations, and the problem-solving essay.
The new process would raise the requirement from a 3.0 grade point average in core classes to 3.5. It would retain the requirements that students take algebra I in the eighth grade and fill out a student information sheet including a questionnaire and essay.
Selection to TJ would be based on a lottery. Pathways based on geographic location would be developed to ensure equitable access for students residing in the regions served by TJ: Fairfax County (350 seats), Arlington County (18), Falls Church City (2), Loudoun County (62), and Prince William County (68). Private school applicants would be assigned a pathway based on residency.
Each of the five regions in Fairfax County would have 70 seats. (Region 2 includes these middle schools: Glasgow, Holmes, Jackson, Kilmer, Longfellow, and Poe.)
Students who meet the qualifications would be randomly selected by a merit lottery within each pathway. Students would be given a time frame to accept or reject their offer.
Each pathway would maintain a list of students not chosen in the initial merit lottery. Additional applicants will be offered admission to TJ on the first and 15th of every month through the end of the first quarter to maintain a class of 500.
Improving the admissions process is just one step in a multipronged strategy to address equity at TJ, Brabrand says. FCPS would also expand the pipeline by ensuring equitable access to rigorous STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) instruction at the elementary and middle school level. It would also ensure a “caring culture” at TJ, to include more support for students.
If approved by the school board, the new process would be implemented for the next admissions cycle.
The proposed changes will be discussed in a virtual town hall on Wednesday, Sept. 23, at 7 p.m. That meeting will be live-streamed on FCPS Channel 99. Community members can watch live on FCPS Channel 99 and submit questions by calling 1-800-231-6359.
Related story: A call to action from the TJ principal
The TJ Alumni Action Group (TJAAG) issued a statement Sept. 15 supporting the proposal for a merit lottery by region.
“Despite unfounded arguments that any changes to TJ would reduce its prestige, applications to TJHSST have declined under the status quo,” TJAAG states. Applications are down 25.8 percent from the peak in 2012.
“Changing the TJ admissions process takes a big step toward much-needed improvements to the climate at the school,” TJAAG says. “Dozens of alumni over the years have shared stories of how they were made to feel that they didn’t belong due to racism, classism, and ableism. At the same time, alumni historically in the majority at TJHSST have shared how a lack of a diverse student body left them unprepared for leadership and life after graduation. We also hear from underrepresented minorities that don’t apply at all, because the word is that if they got in, they wouldn’t fit in because of racism at TJHSST.”