In addition to coping with online schooling in the wake of the pandemic, and trying to figure out what “reopening” might look like, this fall leadership in our overly-large school district also have another Post-headline-generating problem to cope with.
It seems that a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School for Math and Science, the district’s marquee magnet school, noticed something funny about the composition of the fall class: there were very few Latino students, and statistically no Blacks.
Fairfax County Public Schools published the data on its website in early June, just as the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd were beginning to thunder throughout America. That confluence of events has fueled a seismic reckoning over racism, student body demographics and the admissions process at the school — which, like other magnet schools, has long been notorious for failing to admit black and Latino students.
“Notorious” because this issue is nothing new. The lack of minority representation (other than Asian) in the Jefferson student population has been brought up many times over the years, going back to the school’s opening in the mid-80’s. And the problem extends far beyond the Jefferson admission process.
Many believe the problem starts in elementary school. That is when Fairfax administers a test to determine whether first- and second-grade students qualify for the Advanced Academic Program (AAP), a gifted-track learning program that many parents view as the path to Thomas Jefferson.
However, there are a couple of elements related to this story not found in the Post stories and that won’t be found in Jefferson’s official history or profile. But they do add some context.
The first is that there is really nothing special about the school, other than a high concentration of bright, stressed kids with hyper-driven parents.
The curriculum is standard college prep, with a few college freshman level classes added on the top. The instruction is also a traditional university lecture/demo approach with very little innovative in the way of instruction. A friend who taught at Jefferson for most of a decade called the school a “Mini-Me MIT”.
Second, when Jefferson was opened in the mid-80’s, the district’s unspoken goal was to convince rich families not to pull their kids out of the system and send them to one of the elite private schools in the area. The school and the “advanced” programs in elementary and middle schools, then called GT (for gifted and talented) were all part of the package.
Anyway, the Fairfax school board pretty quickly dropped the Jefferson admission test and told the superintendent to develop another system. He proposed to “assign 400 of 500 spots in TJ’s classes by a ‘merit-based lottery’”, which didn’t really please anyone. So the board told him to “establish a plan for student talent development” to “address the systemic issues that impact diversity at TJ.”.
Of course, some families are now suing the district over all the changes. Because that’s what people in DC area do when someone doesn’t give them what they believe they are entitled to.
So this story will continue. Unless it gets swept under the carpet yet again, although I suspect that may not happen this time.
But if anyone was asking me (unlikely), my solution would be to disband Jefferson altogether, along with the concept of “magnet” programs. Then provide the resources necessary so that all students in the district have access to a broad range of learning opportunities to fit their interests and talents, no matter their school.
Or is that too simple.
The picture, from The Washington Post archives, is the rather pretentious dome at the main entrance to Jefferson High School. The original was designed by Thomas Jefferson for the University of Virginia.