- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2001

ANNANDALE, Va. As Fairfax County becomes more and more diverse, its premier public high school is moving in the opposite direction.
The incoming freshman class of the Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology, a magnet school with a national reputation, is only a half-percent black and 1.6 percent Hispanic. That's just two black students and seven Hispanics among a class of 430.
Compare that with the just-graduated class of 2001, which was 5.8 percent black and 5.6 percent Hispanic when it began ninth grade.
"It's a huge concern. I was shocked when I came to the school this year and saw the numbers," said new principal Elizabeth Lodal.
Jefferson may well have the smartest student body of any high school in the country. Last year, 153 students were named National Merit Scholar semifinalists, the most in the nation for 10 of the past 11 years. The average SAT score at the school is above 1400.
Four years ago, the school took race into account as it considered the thousands of applications it receives for the 400 or so spots available in each class. But subsequent court rulings led administrators to believe that the admissions process had to be race neutral, so the school system changed its policy, said its regional superintendent, Michael Glascoe.
"Once that changed, the numbers dropped off considerably," Mr. Glascoe said.
The demographic change has not gone unnoticed by students.
"The students are really getting upset by the numbers," said Courtney Sims of Burke, a black student who just graduated from Jefferson and will attend Stanford in the fall. "Everybody is trying to figure out what to do to improve diversity. It's a complicated issue."
Miss Sims was quick to point out that she always felt at home at Jefferson, even though she was often the only black student in her class.
"Everyone is friends with everyone, although you do notice that most of the people there don't look like you," she said.
The dropoff has occurred as the school system grows increasingly diverse. Blacks account for 11 percent and Hispanics, 13 percent of the 158,000-student school system. Four years ago, blacks also were 11 percent of the countywide student body, but Hispanics constituted only 10 percent.
Jefferson isn't the only magnet struggling to maintain a diverse student body. The Governor's School for Government and International Studies in Richmond, which along with Jefferson is one of only three all-day magnet schools in the state designated as an elite Governor's School, also has seen its number of blacks and Hispanics drop.
The incoming freshman class of 139 has only eight blacks and one Hispanic. Four years ago, the freshman class had no Hispanics, but 21 blacks in a class of 149.
The third all-day Governor's School, the Appomattox School in Petersburg, has been in existence only two years, and enrollment figures were unavailable for the incoming students.
At the Richmond school, the admissions process has always been race-neutral. But it still makes an extra effort to get minority students to apply.
To begin with, it provides proportional representation to the 11 localities it serves. That ensures that the city of Richmond, with a large black population, does not have to compete with wealthier suburban counties such as Henrico and Chesterfield to place its students at the school.
In addition, guidance counselors make sure to visit middle schools with high minority populations to encourage students there to apply, said Admissions Director Mike Geiger.
At Jefferson, a task force has been formed to determine ways to boost black and Hispanic enrollment without resorting to a quota system. A report from the task force is expected by February, Mr. Glascoe said.
"There's no reason Jefferson should not look like the rest of the community," Miss Lodal said. "But this is not a problem unique to Jefferson."
She said the county, like most other school districts, first tries to identify gifted and talented students in the second grade. If talented minority students aren't identified early, it aggravates the problem.
It is also important to get parents and students thinking about Jefferson early on. For instance, a student must have already completed algebra to enroll at the school, so a student who wants to attend Jefferson has to be placed on an advanced math track well before the eighth grade.
Miss Sims said it would be easy for a student to cruise through middle school without being aware that Jefferson is even an option.
"If it hadn't been for the fact that my older sister went there, I would have known nothing about it," she said.
The county's Asian population is well represented at Jefferson, constituting 21 percent of the incoming freshman class.
Asian community groups in the region make a concerted effort to get their children enrolled at Jefferson. Korean churches, for instance, regularly hold classes to help students prepare for the school's rigorous admissions test, Mr. Lodal said.
The school system wants to make sure that all students have the same chance to prepare for Jefferson's rigorous admissions process.
In fact, volunteer efforts are under way to offer a similar prep course for minority students, said Don Mixon, a black parent at the school whose son, Ricky, will attend the University of Virginia this fall.
"Everybody is working hard to address this issue," Mr. Mixon said. "It's going to take a concerted effort by everyone, but I'm confident things will improve."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide