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