Elite public schools in Virginia, elsewhere seek diversity

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Dinan Elsyad, Sean Nguyen, Tiffany Ji, Jordan Lee, Shibli Nomani

Rising seniors at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology gather on the campus in Alexandria, Va., Monday, Aug. 10, 2020. From left in front are, Dinan Elsyad, 17, Sean Nguyen, 16, and Tiffany Ji, 17. From left at rear are, Jordan Lee, 17, and Shibli Nomani, 17. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology regularly finds itself at the very top of national rankings, an elite public school in the suburbs of the nation’s capital for which families start preparing their children as early as kindergarten.

For decades, though, Black and Hispanic students have made up just a tiny fraction of the school’s student body.

That may be changing soon, as Virginia officials prepare plans to dramatically alter the admissions policy at TJ and 18 other gifted high schools across the state.

The lack of diversity in gifted education is a nationwide problem, one that officials in many states are now seeking to change at a time of heightened awareness of racial inequality after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the Black Lives Matter protests.

At the elite Stuyvesant magnet high school in New York City, for example, diversity proponents want to change a system whose sole determinant of admission is a standardized test.

But not everyone is in favor. Some parents and alumni of magnet schools say they are worried the changes will entail relaxing admissions standards and lowering the schools’ quality.

Virginia Education Secretary Atif Qarni has been leading a task force impaneled by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam to examine ways to increase diversity at Thomas Jefferson and the other Governor’s Schools. He expects the task force could produce recommended changes to the schools’ admissions policies as soon as Thursday.

“It’s certainly not a difficult problem to fix,” Qarni said. “The problem has been a lack of political will.”

The problem is most pronounced at the state’s two biggest governor’s schools, TJ and the Maggie Walker Governor’s School in Richmond. Out of roughly 1,300 students at TJ, only 31 are Black and 47 Hispanic — less than 2% and 3%, respectively. At Maggie Walker, Blacks make up about 7% of the student body, even though the Richmond-area population it serves has a much larger African-American population.

Three proposals are under consideration. In the first, instead of taking the top 400 applicants for a freshman class, all applicants who achieve a certain score would be entered into a lottery.

Another plan would guarantee a certain number of slots for students at each of the middle schools that feed into a governor’s school, ensuring geographic, and most likely, racial diversity, Qarni said.

He said similar plans elsewhere have been shown to increase diversity.

Some parents, though, are fierce defenders of the current admission system, and worry that changes will result in a “dumbing-down” of the schools.

“Ultimately they’re race-based policies,” Asra Nomani, a member of a newly formed parents’ group Coalition for TJ, said of the recommendations floated by Qarni. “They’re not saying it but they’re making it race-based.”

She said TJ’s hallmark grueling math curriculum and other programs would be diluted if admissions standards are relaxed.

“You cannot lower the standards of admission without lowering the standards of the curriculum,” she said.

She also pointed out that more than 70% of TJ’s student body is Asian American, including many from immigrant families.

Many families take extraordinary early steps to get into TJ. Principal Ann Bonitatibus told the task force that some overseas elementary and middle schools even market themselves on their ability to prepare kids for the magnet school.

Sean Nguyen, 16, a TJ rising senior and student government association member, said the school is badly in need of increased diversity.

“TJ is certainly a bubble, and it’s a cultural bubble as well,” he said.

Still, he said he and other students don’t agree with the task force’s proposals.

He said that instead of modifying the schools’ standards, educators at the earliest grade levels should start ensuring that Black and Hispanic students are included in gifted programs that would set them on a course to qualify for magnet high school admission later on.

Maggie Walker alumna Rasheeda Creighton agreed that the pipeline problems are serious but says change needs to happen now. She has been leading an effort to reform the admissions process there to expand opportunities for Black and minority students.

She said she supports the task force’s work and that other alumni “are absolutely activated and motivated to create change.”

“The climate of the country right now is grasping the need for the change, the need for social justice,” she said.

Task force member and Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand told the Fairfax County NAACP on Thursday that he expects the school board to take up changes to TJ’s admission in coming months and “seek solutions, not 20 years of status quo where we have tried to do something but we’ve nibbled around the edges and it has not made a major change.”

He said the current system is unfair, with too much emphasis placed on an admissions test around which an entire cottage industry of test preparation has sprouted.

“If you have test prep access, you have a big leg up,” Brabrand said.

Another member of the task force, Democratic state Sen. Scott Surovell, said he’s optimistic the legislature will take up the issue given the current social climate, though he knows the difficulty of changing the status quo. Legislation he introduced in 2018 to address the admission issue at TJ failed to get out of committee.

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