Few black, Hispanic students at elite public school

Few black or Hispanic students qualify for an elite magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in northern Virginia. While blacks and Hispanics make up 33 percent of public school students in the region,  they comprise less than 4 percent of TJ’s student body. “Initiatives to enlarge the pipeline of qualified black and Hispanic students in elementary and middle school have flopped,” reports the Washington Post.  Asian-Americans are now the largest group of students.

Like other public schools with competitive admissions, TJ screens applicants through grades and test scores. A key requirement is that students take Algebra 1 by eighth grade. Many disadvantaged students don’t clear that threshold, which presents a national challenge for science and math instruction.

Competition to get into TJ is fierce. Some private companies charge hundreds of dollars to prepare students for the school’s entrance exam, a two-hour test of math and verbal-reasoning skills. For those who get in, the payoff is clear. The school has an array of laboratories in fields such as biotechnology and microelectronics, and students follow a rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum that culminates in a senior research project.

The school adopted race-blind admissions in 1997. In 2004, officials decided to let race and ethnicity be considered as a factor, along with essays and teacher recommendations, once applicants had been screened by test scores and grades. But the admissions rate for blacks and Hispanics continued to fall.

Other selective regional schools have stopped using affirmative action, the Post reports.

Fairfax school officials say that diversifying TJ requires more than making admissions criteria more flexible. It means helping black and Hispanic students keep up with their white and Asian American counterparts at an early age, especially in math and science.

Since 2000, a county program known as Young Scholars has tried to recruit elementary students who might one day attend TJ. More than half of the program’s 3,776 students between kindergarten and eighth grade are black or Hispanic. Next spring, the first 30 Young Scholars will graduate from high school. Only one will be a TJ graduate.

The school’s Parent Teacher Student Association also offers free test-preparation courses for minority students.

Because there’s little diversity, students “are missing out on a critical part of their education,” says Melissa Schoeplein, a history teacher who complains of teaching about race and poverty in classes with no blacks or Hispanics.

In California, many high-achieving Asian-American students come from low-income and working-class immigrant families. I’d bet that’s true in Virginia too.

Via Education Gadfly

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  1. GoogleMaster says:

    In NoVa, I’d bet the Asian-American students have two degreed parents working in finance and/or technology.

  2. So the black/Hispanic kids are there as garnish? It’s hard to imagine that anyone living in that area could have no contact with African-Americans. If kids don’t apply, well, so be it. Teaching a class about poverty? Take a field trip to West Virginia. Poverty/discrimination aren’t synonymous with skin color.

    Or get a Nigerian cab driver to come in for the day.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Raise your hand if you’re surprised.

  4. If African American students from the surrounding area don’t have the test scores to qualify, I fail to see how that is a problem that TJ needs to change in order to address. Instead, its a problem that the feeder schools need to work on.

    Lowering quality never helped anyone.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    So, once these unqualifed kids get into a rigrous school, what happens next?
    They flunk in large proportions? They get passed despite not passing? They get special help? Is the special help additional instruction, or facilitating their passing by, say, giving them extra time or making it open-book or bringing (restricted, of course) cheat sheets to exams?

  6. Remember that for every underqualified student admitted, a better-qualified one is not.

    There’s also research documenting that Asians spend the most time on homework/studying, followed by whites. A large gap follows, then Hispanics and blacks. Effort is certainly part of the problem. In very competitive areas, kids have to be able to follow a long-term plan for success that they may see only dimly, through parent/teacher efforts.

    I also wonder about curriculum issues. A number of the popular ES and MS math curricula are inherently flawed and instructional methods may also be weak, for which Kumon and its confreres are very grateful. The curricula for reading, grammar. logic and composition are also likely to have serious weaknesses. Kids whose parents are unaware of such issues and/or are unable to remediate are the hurt the most. As more and more of academic success rests on the efforts of parents, the term “afterschooling” has come into use; parents/tutors/Kumon etc.

  7. The relevant figure is not the demographics of the overall student population in the district but rather the demographics of the applicant pool to TJ. It’s a voluntary process to apply to the school- you can’t force a student to submit an application if he or she is simply not interested in attending.

  8. superdestroyer says:

    The idea that the parents of students at TJ are poor or blue collar is laughable. After juding many TJ students at science fairs, I would say that the most common TJ student has at least one parent with a PHD. Their parents work in defense, IT, health care, or consulting. The physics section of the Fairfax County science fair is filled with projects that students got from their parents who work at the National Reconnaissance Office, Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Navy Research Lab,etc.

    A student whose parents do not know calculus and computer programming does not stand a chance of succeeding at TJ.

  9. Roger Sweeny says:

    America is a strange country: racist against blacks and hispanics, and racist in favor of asians.

  10. But the DC area is packed with immigrants who moved there with nothing and then, by hard work, got professional positions or opened businesses. When I lived there in the 70s, Vietnamese were driving cabs and bussing tables–now their kids are MDs, PhDs, and the grandkids are going to high school. LA sees a similar pattern.

  11. As a huge supporter of our Young Scholar program I’m horrified to hear that only one of the original YS graduates is graduating from TJ. Our hope with the program is that it helps us as elementary teachers be more aware of our children’s “sparks” and raise expectations, encouraging them to set higher goals, and push themselves. It also is suppose to encourage parents to understand what else is out there for our children. I think there is a lot we could do in elementary school with the YS program to increase achievement.