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Posted at 9:00 PM ET, 11/ 2/2010

Boosting diversity at Thomas Jefferson High

By washingtonpost.com editors

By Jennifer Seavey
Great Falls

Regarding the Oct. 31 front-page article "One thing elite N.Va. school doesn't do well: Diversity":

As a faculty member at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology for 12 years, I've watched the ebb and flow of efforts to combat the complex problem of diversity recruiting. Most of what reporter Kevin Sieff wrote was accurate. Unfortunately, he did not include the latest efforts TJ and the county have undertaken to address the shrinking number of blacks and Hispanics on our campus.

Starting last year, a group of teachers, counselors and administrators formed the Diversity and Engagement Curriculum Team. In year one, we focused on two nearby Fairfax public school clusters that had the lowest number of students coming to TJ. These areas are also home to vibrant black and Hispanic populations. Our agenda included a day for middle school teachers and administrators to visit our campus; an afternoon when more than 100 middle school students watched our freshman robot competition; a day when counselors from all over the county were introduced to our programs; and an all-school effort to support the well-established Techstravaganza science fair aimed at elementary and middle school students from around the region.

Our last goal was to enable hot lunch-eligible middle schoolers to participate in our Summer Technology Institute. We covered the registration fees for 200 around 100 students, many of them from our target group. Last, Fairfax County authorized the creation of a position in the TJ admissions office dedicated to this diversity effort.

We are in year two now, with plans to reach out to the elementary schools in Clusters III and IV, working with academic coaches, math and science team leaders, administrators and counselors. Yes, we understand we have a difficult road ahead, but we are not sitting by and bemoaning our failures.

By washingtonpost.com editors  | November 2, 2010; 9:00 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Virginia, schools  
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Comments

Seavey is a journalism teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology. It is no surprise she would defend her school and understand how to use the press.

She writes: "Starting last year." Why did TJ wait? Why now? In typical TJ style, TJ groups will begin to protect the reputation of their school, the organization. For example, the Nov. 2010, online TJHSST PTSA newsletter (Diversity Committee) states: “This topic is especially timely in light of the recent article in the Washington Post about the TJ admissions process:”

The November newsletter also states something we hear year after year at TJ: “Our kids came here not just to get an education, but to get a TJ education, and a TJ education is not free.” I agree. A TJ education is not free. Unfortunately, it is at the expense of students throughout FCPS and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Ironically, this might be where the TJ playing field is most level, a TJ education costs students throughout FCPS far too much. Just to scratch the surface at TJHSST: smaller class sizes, extended days for clubs, $90 million proposed for building while Annandale schools are re-districted and Clifton Elementary is closed, corporations give to TJ instead of other schools and so on.

Mr. Seiff, thank you for your article. We look forward to more explorations of this elite Governor's School, TJHSST.

Posted by: RubyBridges | November 3, 2010 9:22 AM | Report abuse

"A TJ education is not free."

If you think TJ costs Fairfax county too much money, I suggest you take it up with the school board. That doesn't have anything to do with the diversity of the student body.

I'd like to see a comparison of demographics of students who apply to TJ, and students who get in. It's nearly impossible to take students who don't actually apply to a school.

Posted by: 584369 | November 3, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

Thanks Mrs. Seavey. You address that TJ is trying to encourage underrepresented minority students to apply and become interested in science. And your position at TJ makes you much more qualified to comment than less-involved bystanders.

I'm not sure where Ruby Bridges is coming from. The extra money TJ students receive from VA state legislature and corporations is earned - and much of our funding is redirected to other Fairfax county schools.

I see a large hole in Mr. Seiff's article in not providing statistics for the number of minority students who apply to TJ in the first place.

I'm a senior at TJ. Our students pride themselves in having earned a spot at TJ - EVERYONE, regarless of race or skin color or any other arbitrary demographic. Encouraging science interest is fantastic, and the school is leading the way in that regard. I know it is popular to bash TJ, but let's not get carried away.

Posted by: 2011rmalka | November 3, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

As a senior at Thomas Jefferson I agree that diversity is somewhat of a problem, but a system of some type of affirmative action is not the answer. There are lots of smart and qualified hispanic and african american students who simply don't here about TJ. Instead of lowering our standards to except less qualified students, we need to create programs to bring the qualifications of those students up.

Posted by: Robin27 | November 3, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

A well-written letter. Thank you, Jennifer, for bringing this information to our attention.

Posted by: WashingtonPosters | November 3, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

At the heart of science, engineering, and technological innovation is diversity of perspectives. If the US is to remain the global leader in STEM, attention must be paid to these untapped pools of talent, ie underrepresented groups such as tribal groups, ethnic/racial minorities, women, and people with disabilities.

Targeting these groups -- or "affirmative action" -- does not translate to lowering standards. It's providing equal access where there is none.

I work with NSF and I am absolutely appalled that its efforts to "broaden participation" -- as well as the diversity efforts of science and engineering depts at our nation's universities -- are being negated by places like TJ. TJ could do more, but it chooses not to so it can maintain its elite status.

Posted by: mediajunky | November 3, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

@Robin27 - your prejudice and naivete is clear if you think the problem is the students.

Women are underrepresented in STEM education and employment does that mean that women need to "bring up their qualifications"? No, it means the system is not allowing them the opportunity to advance and penalizing them for whatever reason.

Posted by: mediajunky | November 3, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

TJ is a selective high school and the selection is largely based on academic merit, not race, not color, not financial status. The diversity issue is not a result of its intent and the only way to take care of this issue is to change the the nature of the selection, then obviously, TJ would be no longer the TJ we know and finally nobody would care this issue anymore. We ask TJ to solve the problem nobody can.

Posted by: Observer82 | November 3, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

TJ is a selective high school and the selection is largely based on academic merit, not race, not color, not financial status. The diversity issue is not a result of its intent and the only way to take care of this issue is to change the the nature of the selection, then obviously, TJ would be no longer the TJ we know and finally nobody would care this issue anymore. We ask TJ to solve the problem nobody can.

Posted by: Observer82 | November 3, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

"Targeting these groups -- or "affirmative action" -- does not translate to lowering standards. It's providing equal access where there is none."

Doesn't "affirmative action" mean, in this case, setting quotas for how many people of a certain race TJHSST would have to include in its incoming freshman class? What that translates to depends on the people who apply to the school. If 10% of the students who apply to TJ are, for instance, black, and 10% of the people who are accepted are black, then there is no problem. If 20% of applicants are black but only 10% of the accepted students are, then there's a problem, and if affirmative action can bring that ratio up to 1:1, it translates to equal access. However, if affirmative action causes an imbalance the other way, with 20% of the accepted students being black when only 10% of the applicants are black, then the affirmative action does translate to lower standards, because it makes the "black pool" less competitive than the others, in effect making it easier for a black student to be accepted than a student of any other race.

If affirmative action does cause that sort of shift, it could have even worse effects. If a less qualified student is more likely to be accepted if he is of an under-represented race, then although the incoming freshman class will be more diverse, but the less qualified students who were accepted to fill the racial quota will be more likely to struggle, possibly to the point of dropping out.

The answer lies in recognizing talented students and getting them on a path toward TJHSST. I think affirmative action has potential to assist in this, but I don't think the onus goes entirely on the school.

Posted by: 584369 | November 3, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

The so-called affirmative action in this case is actually a kind of insult to the people it meant to protect.

Posted by: Observer82 | November 3, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

joining the list of tj students here who don't really appreciate having their school excoriated in a national newspaper...

I would like to echo the sentiment that it isn't TJ's admission process at fault in this issue. Clearly, Hispanics and blacks should make up a more proportionate population of the school. But the admission process at TJ should not be the source of change. Ms Seavey has the right idea; outreach to the schools that feed into TJ so that they make sure their students know about the application process is the most important part. Perhaps I am sensitive because it's my school, but the article seems to lay a lot of blame on TJ, when that is not where the problem lies. No school mentioned in the article has good diversity. So where does the problem come from?
The article mentions the Algebra I requirement as a hurdle for disadvantaged potential applicants. This is a problem that is most easily solved at the elementary school level. The higher the math level becomes, the more difficult it is to catch up to. Raising the math achievement of elementary age students would make it much easier for them to get into TJ. Is raising elementary math achievement something that TJ is responsible for? I would say no. (Now it feels appropriate to mention that local elementary school tutoring is a very popular extracurricular for TJ stucents...)
Another hurdle (though one not mentioned in the article) is science fair projects. A successful and in-depth science fair project is one of the best ways of demonstrating an interest in science, and gives teachers something extremely positive to write about in their letters of recommendation. Both of those are very important in potential students' applications. Still, many already disadvantaged middle school students don't do science fair projects, or blow them off and do perfunctory work. Perhaps if middle schools placed more emphasis on doing science fair projects, more students of different backgrounds would get in.
Diversity doesn't strike me as an issue for the admissions process to tackle. The admissions process takes into account grades, course rigor, teacher recommendations, essays, test scores, and applicant interest. It tries to be as fair and balanced as it can and mostly succeeds. The student body can be described as filled with academically driven students genuinely interested in science, math, and technology. The way to foster diversity is to prepare students better at lower levels so that they meet the high standards of TJ admission.

Now a tangent: At a time when so many people sources decry the state of American education, it is interesting that a highly successful local American public high school attracts mostly negative press. The epithet "elite public high school" is particularly odd because it implies that TJ students are a sort of improper educational aristocracy. We work really hard to achieve academically and I *kinda* hoped that was something to be encouraged.

Posted by: jimothybobcheck | November 3, 2010 8:05 PM | Report abuse

I don't care.

So what if the number of black students at TJ is decreasing? Who cares? I'm a Senior at Jefferson, and I assure you, I certainly don't. I don't see a reason why I OUGHT to care, and the Post, rather than explaining why I should (Besides one scant paragraph making an argument about lectures on race and poverty - which I don't buy) merely seemed to believe that I would automatically consider this to be a grave issue.

I don't care. I don't care that black students are underrepresented, I don't care that hispanics are underrepresented, and I don't care - AT ALL - that my "race" (Caucasian) is underrepresented at Jefferson.

(White students make up a majority of Fairfax County Public Schools, but we do not constitute a majority at TJ, and it appears to me that nobody (myself included) considers this to be a problem.)

There's a major double standard in the rhetoric of the Post's article. The title plainly ought to read "Numbers of Black, Hispanic, and Caucasian students dwindle at elite Va. public school," but it doesn't. Taking the article at face value, it appears that the author is insinuating that the decrease in numbers of hispanic and black students is inherently a bad thing (which it isn't) and that something should be done to remedy it. At the same time, while failing to discuss the under-representation of white students, it insinuates that a decline in their numbers is not a problem (which it isn't).

As I said above, I don't think that the continually decreasing number of white students at TJ is a problem. It's just a thing. I ALSO don't think that the decreasing number of black students is a problem. Again, it's just a thing.

I don't CARE what race somebody is. If it turns out that Asian kids are more likely to meet the qualifications for entry to Jefferson, that isn't a problem. If it turns out that black kids are less likely to be qualified to go to TJ, that IS NOT a problem. What would be a problem to me, as a student at the school, is if any sort of policy existed which excluded more qualified individuals from gaining entry to TJ just because their parents happen to be of Korean or German descent, as opposed to Nigerian or Mexican. What would be a problem to me is if TJ had anything but a 100% merit based admissions process. I don't care about race.

To me, the article completely failed to sell dwindling numbers of blacks as a concern. It's not a concern. By addressing this "issue" and failing to address the underrepresentation of whites at TJ, the Post is being racist. By implying that black students help a school community by virtue of being black, they are being racist. By implying that TJ could be improved by removing Asians and whites and replacing them with blacks and hispanics, they are being racist.

I look forward to a colourblind America where people don't care about race anymore than they care about hair colour.

(Can you imagine a "Number of Red-Haired students dwindles at elite Va. public school?")

Posted by: HalcyonDaze | November 4, 2010 1:25 AM | Report abuse

Apologies for the second post, but I feel compelled to reply to this dolt while I'm here.

~~~~~

"A TJ education is not free. Unfortunately, it is at the expense of students throughout FCPS and the Commonwealth of Virginia."

~~~~~

No kidding, you fool, no education is free. Yes, it costs money to ensure that FCPS is providing the best education it possibly can to the top kids in the district. Yes, it costs money to educate the best and the brightest in Fairfax, and to educate the leaders of tomorrow.

But do you know what else costs a lot? Teaching English as a Second Language kids. You know what else costs a lot? Providing remedial math and english classes for kids who are on the lower end of the spectrum here in FCPS.. God-forbid we slash the budget in those places, though. We should be encouraging the development of more schools similar to TJ, not shunting them aside because they "cost too much." As a society we should be encouraging our top students to excel, not placing such emphasis on having all students achieve mediocrity...

Of course, I'm in favour of a complete overhaul of our education system modeled after Germany's, but that's rather besides the point here..

~~~~~

"$90 million proposed for building while Annandale schools are re-districted and Clifton Elementary is closed, corporations give to TJ instead of other schools and so on."

~~~~~

Unlike you, I was AT the school board meeting where the board debated closure of Clifton and then voted on it, so I know the full rational behind their decision to close the school. The enrollment at Clifton Elementary had been declining steadily for years, and there were MULTIPLE elementary schools zoned adjacent to Clifton that were well under-capacity. The school had not been renovated for ages, had failed several important fire-safety examinations, and was deemed by the school board to be relatively unsafe. Several board members expressed concerns that keeping Clifton open would be a hazard for students, especially in lieu of what occurred at Dogwood Elementary a few years prior. If the board had decided to keep the school open, despite its continuous decline in constituency, they would have been quasi-forced to invent millions on renovating it to ensure that the school was safe. The earliest renovation could begin would have been 2015? or beyond, and the board felt uncomfortable keeping the school open for that elongated period of time without a renovation.

Clifton was an intelligent cut for FCPS to make, as it harmed very few people in any way at all. It did NOT represent a desperation move to balance the budget on FCPS's part, if that's what you're trying to get at.

Also, TJ hasn't been renovated in 25 years. It waited its turn on the FCPS renovation queue, so your argument there is completely null and void. Fairfax HS just got close to a 100,000,000 dollar renovation, now it's TJ's turn, just like any other high school.. West Springfield or Hayfield or anybody else.

Posted by: HalcyonDaze | November 4, 2010 2:28 AM | Report abuse

If I am reading this correctly, teachers and administrators on the "team" are working with other teachers, counselors, administrators, and 'academic coaches'.

Perhaps if TJ staff talked more with PARENTS and less with "academic coaches' they would have more success.

These teams are the height of Jack Dale's PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) which are completely ineffective in dealing with students, but give administrators a reason to have jobs.

Ugh.

Posted by: mikecapitolhill | November 4, 2010 5:32 AM | Report abuse

Hey HalcyonDaze - great comments! The much-maligned journalism teacher Mrs. Seavey thought you wrote a great opinion piece from a rhetorical standpoint.

Posted by: 2011rmalka | November 4, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

How did other “best” schools achieve what TJ did not? Perhaps TJ can learn from a few “best” high schools in America (U.S. News and World Report, Dec. 2009):

TJHSST, Alexandria, VA: Asian 40%, White 54%, Hispanic 2.7%, Black 1.9%, economically disadvantaged 1.3%

Newcomers High School on Long Island City, NY: Asian 33%, Hispanic 56% and economically disadvantaged 79%.

In Texas, KIPP Houston High School is 18% black, 79% Hispanic and 1.6% Asian, .8% white and economically disadvantaged 87.5%.

In Alabama, Loveless Academic Magnet Program is 28% Black, 14% Asian, 54% white and 11% economically disadvantaged.

How did TJ supposedly seek diversity for so long and fail? Why did the Office of Civil Rights require mandatory training at TJ due to concerns regarding the treatment of the disabled - after they were admitted?

Thanks to the Post for helping us explore what makes a great school. And thanks to TJ teachers and students who do care.

Posted by: RubyBridges | November 4, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

"How did other “best” schools achieve what TJ did not?"

"In Texas, KIPP Houston High School is 18% black, 79% Hispanic and 1.6% Asian, .8% white and economically disadvantaged 87.5%."

~~~~~~

This is not an achievement! This is even less diverse than TJ is. I could easily write an article entitled "Numbers of Asian and Caucasian students dwindle at elite public TX high school." Of course, that would make me a racist and bigot, wouldn't it?

To reiterate, having black students and Hispanic students is NOT inherently a good thing! To the same point, having Asian and Caucasian students is NOT inherently a bad thing!

Anybody who would argue that what makes a "great school" is having lots of Hispanic kids is asinine. That, or they're closet racists against Asians and Caucasians. Don't judge a school based on the colours of its student body. Judge it based on its performance.

Same thing with the students during an admissions process - judge them based on caliber, not colour. We need to move on as a society.

Posted by: HalcyonDaze | November 4, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

Just imagine a high school for the arts was opened in Fairfax County. The requirements for entry were excellence in singing, dancing, etc. Imagine that children of color completely dominated the enrollment. WHite parents in Fairfax would go crazy in little to no time. They would cry about how unfair that is, how their kids didn't get an equal chance, etc. The system would never allow this to happen. I am not saying thta children of color excel at the arts, but I am suggesting that when a narrow criteria is used to determihe entrance and excellence, there is a clear bias. White parents always want breaks for thier kids (isn't everyone GT?) but not for anyone else.

Posted by: lk11 | November 5, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

Hypothetical scenarios and stereotypical generalizations with racist undertones do not make an argument legitimate or intelligent.

Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.

Posted by: HalcyonDaze | November 6, 2010 11:01 PM | Report abuse

Ruby - you're blind to how subtly injurious your attitude is. TJ is not the problem - it is that there are not enough qualified applicants applying. TJ is doing what they can - which is to encourage all qualified applicants to actually apply - but they can't make someone qualified who isn't without lowering the standards.

Here is comments from a miniority TJ Student's coments on this -

My Rant on Diversity, Affirmative Action, and Equality.

White people have spent a long time trying to apologize for slavery and discrimination. Except they don’t call it apologizing, they call it diversification. But the thing is, lowering the standards for non-whites isn’t a proper apology, it just perpetuates the ideal at the heart of racism: that other races are inferior. Letting under qualified minorities into selective schools just because they’re “diverse” keeps people in the mindset that the minorities couldn’t get by on their own. It lets people believe that minorities are only successful as the result of “the system”, and that they wouldn’t have gotten as far without help. Affirmative Action type programs set the bar lower for those who will “add diversity” but don’t benefit those people in the long run. If minorities are given special treatment, rather than pushed to excel, they will never reach their full potential, and will never be on a level playing field with whites. Worse yet, those who do work hard and become successful on their own merits will continue to have their achievements dismissed. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told I’ll have it easier getting into college because I’m black. If I get into certain colleges my peers don’t, I’m sure at least some of them will chalk it up to my race.

As much as this is happening to me now, while applying to college, I’ve never felt that way at TJ. No one assumed I’m at TJ because I’m black. That’s exactly how it should be. Setting the bar high for everyone isn’t racism. It’s the definition of equality. Does it look unfair from the outside? Yes. But the TJ admissions process is not to blame for the discrepancies in race. That stems from the varying level of school quality and awareness of TJ in the counties TJ draws from. Adding diversity to TJ and other selective schools isn’t about changing the standards set to get in, it’s about changing the root of the problem. We can’t simply say “Well, this black person clearly lived in a poorer neighborhood with lower quality schools, so they weren’t able to meet the standards set by our institution. But because it’s not their fault they didn’t meet the standards, we’ll lower them.” Instead, efforts should be made to increase the quality of schools in areas with poverty.
So white people, don’t be afraid to say you think Affirmative Action and similar programs are wrong. You aren’t racist for thinking that. Those that think they’re “championing diversity” by supporting those programs are.

Posted by: rme7d8 | November 9, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

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