Elite public high school struggles to diversify student enrollment
Decades of failed admission and outreach procedures offer unexpected insight
June 21, 2018—Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), a renowned magnet school in Northern Virginia, admits only 15 percent of applicants each year. The school is situated in Fairfax County, where 29 percent of students are from low-income families, compared to only one percent of students offered admission to TJ this year. In a new article for Education Next, Hilde Kahn, former Board member of TJ’s nonprofit foundation, delves into the school’s two-decade struggle to increase diversity at the elite institution where, despite evolving admissions procedures and targeted student support, closing the excellence gap remains a distant goal.
Since its founding in 1985, TJ has failed to achieve a student population that resembles the overall enrollment of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). TJ’s newly accepted Class of 2022 is 65 percent Asian, 23 percent white, five percent Hispanic, and two percent black. Overall student enrollment at FCPS is 39 percent white, 25 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Asian, and 10 percent black.
Adjusting the admission process. TJ was forced to end its race-based affirmative action policy after similar programs faced legal challenges, and the combined share of Black and Hispanic students at TJ dropped from a high of 9.4 percent schoolwide in 1997-98, to a low of 3.5 percent in 2002-03. TJ then pursued a number of other policies intended to promote diversity, including establishing admission quotas for “underrepresented” middle schools; putting more weight on grades and less on test scores; enabling more applicants to become semifinalists; and placing greater emphasis on admitting students with a demonstrated passion for STEM. Together, these changes had the effect of reducing the number of top math students admitted to the school, but the number of admitted students from underrepresented groups did not budge.
Expanding outreach. TJ also engaged in elementary and middle school enrichment programs, such as the Quest program, which provided math and science enrichment sessions outside school hours to low-income students as well as other groups underrepresented at TJ. When the program was deemed ineffective, QUEST was replaced with a single “outreach officer.” FCPS simultaneously increased elementary and middle school students’ access to advanced courses, such as honors programs and Algebra I, but unwittingly moved the benchmark for all students rather than helping underrepresented students access advanced high-school programs such as TJ.
More to the story. While TJ was failing to increase its share of Black and Hispanic students, the percentage of Asian students at the school grew quickly from 20 percent in 1995-96 to 68 percent by 2017-18—an enrollment trend that is evident at elite high schools nationwide. In comparison, the Asian population in the district as a whole increased from 14 to 20 percent during the same time period. A 2018 survey of TJ parents reveals that participation in math and STEM enrichment activities outside of school is especially high among Asian families.
“Because all bright students have the potential to excel,” says Kahn, “we must find ways to provide the students of underrepresented groups access to the same preparation that the parents of admitted students provide for their children.”
To receive an embargoed copy of “A Stubborn Excellence Gap: Despite efforts, diversity stalls at an elite public high school” or to speak with the author, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at firstname.lastname@example.org. The article will be available Tuesday, June 26 on www.educationnext.org.
About the Author: Hilde Kahn is the parent of three Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology graduates, a former Board member of TJ’s nonprofit foundation, and the author of “Closing the Excellence Gap.”
About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit www.educationnext.org.