Commentary: An Opportunity To Improve TJ

To the Editor:

The following open letter was addressed to state Sen. Steve Newman, chair of the Education and Health Committee.

As graduates of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), we were deeply troubled to read that the Education and Health Committee of the Virginia State Senate struck down Senate Bill 787, the proposal by state Sen. Scott Surovell to make the admissions policies at Governor’s Schools such as TJHSST more equitable. While debates will continue about whether Senator Surovell's legislation is the right instrument, its intent to significantly alter Jefferson’s admissions procedure to account for class is sound. No serious action has been taken on this issue at the state or local level since the school was designated as a magnet school and that has to change. Outreach efforts have had modest success in the past, but they are not enough to make Jefferson equitable. For this reason, we strongly support the intent of the senator's bill and ask the committee to work with Senator Surovell to draft legislation to make progress on this urgent issue.

All of us attended Fairfax County Public Schools. There’s one among us who still has her yearbooks and class pictures from kindergarten through 12th grade. And in those images from schools like Saratoga Elementary School and Mark Twain Middle School are the smiling faces of friends and classmates of all races, as well as friends and classmates who lived in a nearby HUD housing development. None of the kids from that housing development made it into TJ, not one. And virtually none of the Black and Hispanic students in those other photos were admitted either.

The racial and economic composition of Jefferson has been an annual news story just about every year since it became a magnet school, and it's never good news. Last year, only 17 Black and Hispanic students were admitted — 3.4 percent out of 490 students. And only eight students (1.6 percent) eligible for free or reduced-price lunches (an indicator of students living in low-income or poor families). This despite the fact that Fairfax County Public School students overall are 25.4 percent Hispanic, 10.1 percent Black, and 29 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

This disparity between Jefferson’s enrollment and the racial and socioeconomic composition of Fairfax County is unacceptable and easily remedied. Countless elite institutions — especially elite colleges — have modified their admissions procedures and requirements in recent years because they have realized that their old criteria have long been leaving talent on the table. They have softened their standardized testing requirements, engaged in admissions outreach, and sought out partners in high schools and middle schools to create a pipeline of under-represented and low-income students to draw from. These students (who would never have been admitted under the old admissions protocols) have thrived at these elite institutions — often overperforming their standardized test scores. Yet Jefferson’s admissions policies proceed ignorant of these developments.

We live in a time when headlines and Twitter feeds constantly observe the pernicious effects of systemic inequality and racism in the daily lives of the poor and people of color. And the state of Virginia has a long legacy of racism that the world was reminded of last year during and after the events that took place in Charlottesville. White supremacy is not just Nazis marching in the streets; it also lies in maintaining a high school that excludes the poor, African-Americans, and Latinos, and then calls itself the greatest, most meritocratic high school in the country. You and the other 12 members of the committee who struck down this modest change to Jefferson’s admissions policies have voted to maintain a blatantly racist and classist flagship school.

This is a shameful display when it would have been so easy for you to answer the impassioned requests of so many parents and alumni, as well as Senator Surovell. We understand that the committee has framed its objections to this bill in terms of local rights. While in many cases local school boards are best situated to make local educational decisions, when a board ignores a pressing issue affecting its most vulnerable and disempowered constituents over decades, the state has an obligation to step in and remedy the injustice.

The one way that Jefferson, with the help of the Fairfax County School Board and the Virginia legislature, could truly differentiate itself is by showing that it is working deliberately and intentionally to combat the structural and systematic racism and class privilege that feeds students into the school. Thousands of schools and nonprofits around the country have already made meaningful change in this area, it's time for Jefferson and those in charge to take responsibility for this problem and do the same.

Alexis Clements, TJHSST ’98, BA Emerson College ’01, MS London School of Economics ’06

Daniel Morales, TJHSST ’98, BA Williams College ’02, JD Yale Law School ’05

Kristina Danahy (Buenafe), TJHSST ’98, BS/MS University of Virginia ’03, Ed.M Harvard ’08

Kristen Olvera Riemenschneider, TJHSST ’98, BSEE University of Virginia ’01, JD University of Virginia ’06

Koyuki Smith, TJHSST ’96, BA Columbia University ’01, MA Columbia University Teachers College ’03

Megan Radek, TJHSST ’93, BA University of Virginia ’97, MA University of Illinois ’04

Veronica Pillar, TJHSST ’06, AB Princeton University ’10, MS Cornell University ’14

Christopher Lee Rollins, TJHSST ’04, BA College of William & Mary ’08

Séain Gutridge, TJHSST ’89

Diane-Marie Johnston, TJHSST ’98, BA University of Virginia ’02

Tamara Metz, TJHSST ’99, BA Bryn Mawr College ’03, MA University of Arizona ’11

Joe Zarrow, TJHSST ’97, BA Brown University ’01, MA New York University ’06

Rachel Yi-Feng Lei, TJHSST ’96, BA Johns Hopkins University ’00, MA Fuller Theological Seminary ’06

Jennifer Love King, TJHSST ’98, BA University of Virginia ’01

Matt King, TJHSST ’98, BA University of Virginia ’02, PhD University of Maryland ’08

Anwar Omeish, TJHSST ’14, BA Harvard College ’19

Richard Berman, TJHSST ’89, BA University of Toronto

Corinne Pender, TJHSST ’05, BS Caltech ’09, PhD MIT ’18

Abby France, TJHSST ’99, BS Northwestern University ’03

Swathi Manchikanti, TJHSST ’06, BS NJIT ’10, MSPH Johns Hopkins University ’13

Jack Levenson, TJHSST ’90, BA St. Mary’s College of MD ’98

Ramón Zabala, TJHSST ’99, BS VA Tech ’08

Hillary Kolos, TJHSST ’98, BFA New York University ’02, SM MIT ’10

Sienna Lotenberg, TJHSST ’14, AB Brown University ’18, MAHL ’21 and Rabbinic Ordination ’23 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Sheryl Wallin Abrahams, TJHSST ’98, BA Rice University ’02, MPH UNC-Chapel Hill ’07

Christine Contreras-Slaughter, TJHSST ’07, BA Duke University ’11

Samuel Leven, TJHSST ’03, BA University of Virginia ’07, JD University of Virginia ’10

Danielle Ahn, TJHSST ’98, BA University of Rochester ’02, MD University of Virginia ’06

Michael Freedman-Schnapp, TJHSST ’98, BA University of Virginia ’02, MUP NYU ’09

Tenzin Lhanze, TJHSST ’14, BS College of William and Mary ’18

James Wu, TJHSST ’96, BS Virginia Tech ’01

Jean Smith, TJHSST ’98, BA University of Virginia ’02, PhD University of California, Santa Barbara ’13

Saniya Suri, TJHSST ’13, BA Washington University in St. Louis, ’17

Sanjana Verma, TJHSST ’13, BS The College of William Mary ’17

Martha Burtis, TJHSST ’92, BA Mary Washington College, MA Teachers College, Columbia U

Pichchenda Bao, TJHSST ’98, BA University of Virginia ’02

Rohit Raghavan, TJHSST ’96, BA Catholic Univ. of America, ’01, JD, Univ. of Illinois,, ’05

Alison Slade, TJHSST ’99, BA University of Virginia, ’05, MS Johns Hopkins University, ’12

Terence McDonnell, TJHSST ’96, BA University of Virginia ’00, PhD Northwestern University ’09

Andrew Hayes, TJHSST ’99, BA University of Virginia ’03, PhD University of Maine ’12

Alan Hevelone TJHSST ’96 BFA Savannah College of Art & Design ’00

Brian Horne, TJHSST ’96, BA University of Virginia ’00, MA University of Chicago ’04

Russell Smith, TJHSST ’96, BA Pennsylvania State University ’00

Janna Harris, TJHSST ’98, BA University of Virginia ’02, PhD Virginia Commonwealth University '08

Nick Berning, TJHSST ’98, BA Macalester College ’02

Anne Marie Creighton, TJHSST ’10, AB Harvard ’14

Keryl Brown, TJHSST ’10, BFA University of Southern California ’14

Brittany Zuñiga Fulton, TJHSST ’07, BA William and Mary ’11, MSW University of Michigan ’16

Elizabeth Carlson, TJHSST ’97, BA Tufts University ’01, PhD UCLA ’11

Kate Hao, TJHSST ’14, BA Washington University in St. Louis ’18

Kassandra Dove McMahon, TJHSST '90, BS Virginia Tech '97, MS American Intercontinental University '00

Jessica Wyman, TJHSST ’97, BA New York University ’01, MBA Columbia University ’08

Kimberly Taylor, TJHSST ’91, BS University of Virginia ’94, PhD University of Wisconsin ’05

William Tarpeh, TJHSST ’08, BS Stanford University ’12, MS UC Berkeley ’13, PhD UC Berkeley ’17

Alec Rose, TJHSST ’86, BA Tufts University ’90, JD University of California, Davis ’93

Kripa Patwardhan, TJHSST ’04, BA University of Virginia ’08, MPP George Mason University ’10

Rob Heittman, TJHSST ’88

Aaron Balasingam Koenig, TJHSST ’10

Dave Algoso, TJHSST ’99, BA University of Virginia ’03, MPA New York University ’11

Jorge A Torrico, TJHSST ’98, BA University of Virginia ’04

Sam Brinton, TJHSST ’10

Tamara Krmoholz, TJHSST ’01, BA University of Virginia ’06, MT University of Virginia ’06

Richard Joyce, TJHSST '00, BA University of Mary Washington '06, MA American University '10

Emily (Stanford) Colson, TJHSST ’95, BA University of Virginia ’98, MD Eastern Virginia Medical School ’03

Caroline Odom, TJHSST ’10

J. M. Harper, TJHSST ’95, BS Carnegie Mellon ’99, JD George Mason ’06

Wendy Guo, TJHSST ’14, BS College of William and Mary ’18

Jennifer Gilbert Manly, TJHSST ’07, BA University of Georgia ’11

Sharon Gentges, TJHSST ’92, BA University of Chicago, BArch Washington University

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