- The Washington Times - Friday, October 12, 2001

Fairfax County schools Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech has proposed changing the admissions policy at a nationally recognized high school to boost enrollment from poorer areas, a plan that has upset parents who say it will adversely affect their children.
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology has a highly acclaimed magnet program that attracts students not just from within Fairfax, but from school districts and private schools around the area. The school had the highest number of National Merit Scholarship semifinalists nationwide this year.
However, minority enrollment at the school has dropped significantly in the last few years, from 21 black and 19 Hispanic students in 1996 to just two blacks and eight Hispanics out of the 420 students the school accepted this year.
Mr. Domenech's proposal would guarantee a fixed number of seats to the county's eight clusters, in the hope that it will encourage applications from schools that have typically sent few or no students to Thomas Jefferson. The plan will help the participation of schools with poorer students, although it will not immediately address the minority problem, he said.
"If you are creating equity, it is important that all neighborhoods participate, or it becomes an issue of some places win and others lose," Mr. Domenech said.
But parents at schools that traditionally send more students to Thomas Jefferson say the new system hurts their children's chances of getting in.
"It seems to substitute fuzzy criteria for objective ones by establishing quotas by geographic region within the county," said James Kremin, whose daughter attends Longfellow Middle School.
This year, 54 Longfellow students were among the 420 freshmen Thomas Jefferson accepted. Parent Louise Epstein, who has a seventh-grader at Longfellow, said only 12 slots would be available to the school under the proposal. Carson Middle School, which sent 36 students to Thomas Jefferson last year, will get 13 slots, according to the proposal.
The proposal also allocates 18 seats to Herndon Middle School, which did not send any students to Thomas Jefferson last year, and 18 seats to Stone Middle School, which sent one student last year.
After seats have been allocated to each neighborhood, "there will be only eight spots left for all extra children in the county who want to get in," she said.
Thomas Jefferson currently selects its 420 freshmen from a pool of 800 qualifying students every year. These students go through a rigorous evaluation that includes their test scores, an essay and recommendations from teachers.
Administration officials stress that under the new proposal, the initial process of selection for the 800 qualifying students will remain the same, guaranteeing the quality of students in the program will not drop. Students will still take a challenging entrance test and will be admitted on the basis of their performance and their grades.
Parents like Mrs. Epstein have in recent days sent several e-mails to School Board members and Mr. Domenech. According to these parents, the school system did not consult them while preparing the plan.
The plan was presented last night to the School Board at a special work session.
Jane Strauss, who represents Dranesville District on the board, said one of the options to implement the plan and appease the angry parents could be to increase the number of seats at the school.
"We don't want to remove opportunities for other students," she said.
She said lack of awareness and a lack of belief that they could get in has kept children in certain parts of the county from applying to Jefferson. "You can set a very high bar, but you have to keep the door open. You have to push hard," she said.
School district officials say the current admission plan does not provide any consideration for children from poorer families. But under the new plan, children who are in the pool of 800 and qualify for free or reduced-price lunch will be immediately accepted.
The proposal, according to both Mr. Domenech and Mrs. Strauss, will not require board approval as it is a policy issue. However, not all School Board members agree on the plan, or on the likelihood that the board may not have the final word on the plan's implementation.
Mychele Brickner, at-large school board member, said an issue as controversial and big as this one would require the board to weigh in.
She said she had "real big concerns" about the proposal, adding that there ought to be a greater push to create opportunities to encourage minorities to enter gifted and talented centers in the county. Such centers typically send the most students to Thomas Jefferson, but have a low representation of minority students.
"Setting a quota based on geography might make things look pretty, but it doesn't get to the real problem," she said.
Mr. Domenech said his proposal would not really increase the number of minorities at Thomas Jefferson, but the other initiatives would work toward this for the future.
"The candidate pool is still 800, and in this 800, we still have the challenge of getting in minorities," he said.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide