Despite accounting for nearly one-third of the local populous, black and Latino students compose less than three percent of the overall student body at a prestigious Fairfax, Va. high school. This is prompting the NAACP to charge in a federal discrimination complaint that the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology board long ago adopted an approach that systematically denies those students admissions to an institution recognized and saluted as one of the “crown jewel high schools” in all the nation.
Department of Education figures reveal those two groups combined to represent just four percent (Hispanics 2.1 percent and blacks 0.6) of the most recent freshmen class of 476 students. More thorough analysis demonstrates whites compose 43 percent of that same class, Asians 46 percent and just over eight percent list their ethnicities as multiracial.
By comparison, minority enrollment at nearby Falls Church and Annadale High Schools, fellow members of the Fairfax County District, top out at 47 and 46 percent respectively.
“Poor Latino kids are not being identified, and I worry part of that is language, and African-American kids are not being identified and I worry that’s race,” said Martina Hone, spokesperson for the Coalition of Science, which has joined the NAACP in formally lodging the complaint.
“The solution to the problem of the lack of diversity in TJ admissions is not necessarily a fix to just the admissions process,” Hone added. “There has to be a fix to the pipeline that feeds into the process.”
Even current Fairfax County School Board member Ryan McElveen was hard-pressed in disputing such logic. “I think that what they bring up is a valid concern,” he admitted, adding that the remedy may indeed best lay in early intervention programs. “In addition to focusing on early education, we’ve also put more money into summer school and interventions throughout the year to help struggling students,” he said.
In a17-page complaint which alleges Fairfax has more or less created “two separate and unequal school systems,” NAACP and Coalition officials also charged students with disabilities are likewise being shut out of the admissions process, partly due to a system that fails to identify and qualify them for gifted education programs which would commence as early as in kindergarten or long before Jefferson and the high school level.
And it’s not confined to only Jefferson, so says Gary Orfield, a UCLA professor in charge of the school’s Civil Rights Project. “It’s ubiquitous,” he said of permeating environment. And it really does tell us something about the poverty of our concept of giftedness, because it’s so related to the concept of family income and privilege.”
Data shows that of the 12,044 elementary-and middle-school students who qualify for so-called Level IV courses, only 455, a representation of just 3.8 percent, of the overall gifted student population are black, even though they make up 10 percent of the overall student population.
As for Hispanics, students account for 6.2 percent of the gifted class, but make up 22 percent of the entire student body.
“To allow some students access to the richness of the bounty of TJ, without trying to level the playing field for all students, seems to violate the fundamental principle of equal opportunity for all,” the complaint states.
The suit also finds fault with the overall Jefferson admissions process, in particular its use of a so-called “student information sheet” in assessing a teen’s motivation and commitment to math and science education. One of the questions posed during the test asked students to “Describe in detail your most important out-of-school or after-school activity or interest.”
“For many black and Latino students, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, their most significant after school activity may well be babysitting their younger siblings while their parents work,” critics charge in their complaint.
Meanwhile, the Education Department’s civil rights division has begun weighing its options in policing the matter, including deciding if it will move to withhold federal funds from Jefferson if it refuses to correct any proven violations. The issue was first addressed at a lengthy school board meeting last month and the debate is expected to continue dominating the discussion in all upcoming conferences.
“It’s certainly a justifiable issue to look at closely,” said Hone. “Really great schools like TJ are huge assets for individuals and for communities, and they should be available fairly to everybody.
“One little organization by itself cannot move this mountain,” she added. “I asked myself no one has ever done this before… it’s a shame that it’s been going on 30 years and they haven’t fixed it.”
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.