School & District Management

Affirmative Reaction

By Catherine Gewertz — February 06, 2002 21 min read
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With race-based admissions policies in legal jeopardy, an elite magnet school dropped affirmative action. The results: plummeting diversity and hard feelings.

On David Sneed’s first day at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology last fall, he attended his first six classes without seeing another black face. It wasn’t until the last period of the day that he discovered another black freshman. The only other black freshman. “I looked around and I was like, ‘Wow! There aren’t many others like me,’ ” David recalls. “People are really friendly here, but I still feel pretty self-conscious about it sometimes.”

In just one day, David learned firsthand that to be black—or Hispanic—at one of the most prestigious public high schools in America is to be a rarity. In David’s freshman class of 430, there are only two black students and seven Hispanic students, down from 21 and 19, respectively, four years ago. Of 1,671 students at Thomas Jefferson this year, 94 percent are white or Asian-American.

Those numbers have caused an uproar in the well-off Washington suburb of Fairfax County, Va., echoing in microcosm scores of affirmative action disputes nationwide. What began as an exploration of ways to mend the expanding racial divide at this distinguished magnet school has boiled over into a painful debate about racism, poverty, merit, and opportunity. Teachers, parents, students, and administrators have wrestled with the issue in spirited hallway arguments, tense school board meetings, and hostile voice-mail exchanges.

“This has been a very difficult issue,” says Jane K. Strauss, the immediate past chairwoman of the Fairfax County school board. “The community has been pretty heated about it. I can show you the wounds.”

At the nondescript, sprawling brick building known to most of the community as TJ, students are all too aware of the controversy, and many smile good-naturedly and roll their eyes when asked about it. In these halls, lined with pale-yellow, ‘60s-vintage tile and rows of dark-blue metal lockers, students of all races describe feeling part of a family at TJ, where being passionate about things like differential equations isn’t a source of embarrassment.

Here, where the current average SAT score is 1470, and after- school activities include entomology and geoscience clubs, ordinary-looking kids in frayed jeans, lugging typically overstuffed backpacks, might spend part of lunch discussing their love lives and part debating Hegel.

People are really friendly here, but I still feel pretty self-conscious about it sometimes.

The feeling of intellectual ferment creates bonds between students, and makes them care deeply about preserving the system that fostered it. Some worry that changing the admissions policy to admit more students from lower-income areas—as the school board recently decided to do in response to the concerns about a decline in diversity—would bring in less-capable students.

“I don’t want to compromise what TJ is based on,” says Teresa Nguyen, 17, a senior from a modest neighborhood whose parents were born in Vietnam. “If you add more people that aren’t as motivated, and they are being added in just because of geography, those people might adversely affect the overall environment.”

At the same time, many teenagers here believe there are too few black and Hispanic students, and consider a varied enrollment an important, enriching part of school life. It’s not hard to find students who welcome changes in admissions that will bring in a wider variety of students. But others say that insufficient diversity would be better addressed by making sure disadvantaged students have the kind of education in elementary and middle school to enable them to gain admission, rather than by revising the process.

“The focus needs to be earlier,” says Tarik Jones, 16, a junior who is the president of the Black Student Union. Coming from a family with two college-educated parents, and attending a middle school where he was placed into a program for gifted children, carved a pathway for him to TJ’s doors, he says.

After school district lawyers, mindful of recent federal court cases, advised district leaders in 1998 against any race- conscious policy, the district dropped race as a factor in its intensely competitive admissions process and dismantled a much-lauded preparation program for disadvantaged students. Since then, district officials have watched Thomas Jefferson population grow less and less representative of the growing racial and ethnic diversity of the 165,000-student Fairfax County system.

“I was shocked, stunned, by the numbers,” says Elizabeth Lodal, who became TJ’s principal in the fall of 2000. “It wasn’t a comfortable thing for people to talk about. I started talking about it.”

It became clear that six of the district’s 24 middle schools, largely in affluent neighborhoods where children are raised with their sights on Jefferson and parents can afford expensive preparation courses, account for as much as half of each entering class. Another half-dozen schools, located in lower-income neighborhoods with larger portions of black, Hispanic, and immigrant families, send few, if any, students to Jefferson.

District officials have watched the Thomas Jefferson population grow less and less representative of the growing diversity of the Fairfax County system.

The result: a far larger share of the school’s enrollment is white or Asian, and from well-to-do families, than the student profile of the district as a whole.

Lodal shared her concerns about the racial disparity with Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech, who responded last October by proposing that each middle school be guaranteed a certain number of spaces at Jefferson, in proportion to its share of the district’s 8th grade population. The intention was to boost access for students from underrepresented middle schools.

Parents in attendance areas that sent disproportionately large numbers to Jefferson protested passionately, arguing that the measure would effectively place a Jefferson attendance cap on their schools, denying qualified children entry. At one school board work session on the proposal, some community members booed and heckled the superintendent. The proposal was withdrawn.

Strauss then thought: If parents are angry that pieces of the pie are being taken away from some children and given to others, why not make the pie bigger? The board agreed, approving on Dec. 6 her proposal to admit to Thomas Jefferson a total of up to 30 additional freshmen each year from underrepresented middle schools. Jefferson draws about 15 percent of its students from several surrounding Virginia counties and cities, but the new policy will not affect admission of those students.

Otherwise, the admissions process remains the same: Eighth graders whose grades and performance on an SAT-like admissions test rank them in the top 800 applicants make the first cut. A screening committee then offers admission to the 420 or so in that pool whose writing samples, teacher recommendations, and résumés of extracurricular activities suggest they are the most likely to succeed at Jefferson. Starting next fall, the committee will choose from the pool of 800 an additional group of up to 30 students who come from underrepresented middle schools, giving careful consideration to students from low-income families.

And so it was that an effort that arose out of concern at the lack of fair racial representation produced a solution that nearly all its architects and proponents, including Strauss, admit is unlikely to deliver many more black and Hispanic students to Jefferson.The new policy’s most optimistic supporters hope that targeting lower-income neighborhoods—which tend to have disproportionately large shares of black and Hispanic families—will produce greater racial and ethnic diversity as a byproduct. Most view the new approach as a compromise—one that can’t get directly at racial balance, perhaps, but could deliver another desirable result instead: opening the doors of Jefferson to more children from poorer families.

But other voices call attention to what they say still needs to be done. Adding more spots at Jefferson, they say, won’t help disadvantaged students get into a high school nearly as selective as the Ivy League because they lack proper preparation. Too few such youngsters are chosen for gifted programs—a high-yield pipeline for Jefferson—and too few hail from families with the money and savvy to arrange for test-preparation classes. Most kids in low-income neighborhoods, these critics contend, have never even heard of TJ.

“Adding 30 kids is very noble, but it’s something we are doing just to say we are doing something,” says Isis Castro, a Cuban-born member of the school board. “Adding the seats doesn’t matter if kids don’t have the preparation. Some of these kids have been getting ready [for the entrance test] since elementary school. Some see the test for the first time the day they take it.”

The dwindling numbers of blacks and Hispanics at Thomas Jefferson are ironic in light of the school’s origins. Born in 1985, when the United States saw itself as “a nation at risk” of losing out to more highly skilled international competitors, the school’s vision was to train future technology luminaries, with a special written pledge from the school board to mirror the racial and ethnic makeup of its community.

While it undoubtedly channels some of the nation’s most brilliant students toward impressive colleges and careers, its story in recent years has become one of struggle, as the school found it harder and harder to cling to its goal of diversity amid a tangle of legal, social, and demographic forces.

In the past 20 years, the student population of the Fairfax County district has shifted from 16 percent minority to 41 percent, fueled largely by growth among Asian- Americans and Hispanics. Well-off families, largely white and Asian, flocked to Fairfax County’s lightly wooded enclaves of diplomats and lawyers who commute across the Potomac River to Washington. Many working-class immigrant, black, and Hispanic families, meanwhile, clustered in the bungalows and townhouses of the county’s more modest neighborhoods.

Adding 30 kids is very noble, but it's something we are doing just to say we are doing something.

Within a few years after Jefferson opened its doors, it became clear that a far greater proportion of white and Asian students were acing the admissions test than were their black and Hispanic counterparts, recalls Geoffrey A. Jones, who was the principal from the fall of 1988 until the spring of 2000.

So the school launched a privately financed program called Visions, which identified promising Hispanic and African-American middle school students and offered them an intensive, two- year preparation program for Jefferson. Visions’ offerings ranged from in-depth, hands-on science projects with high-school mentors to detailed coaching for the admissions test. Its success was clear-cut: Each year, 20 to 30 Visions graduates enrolled at Jefferson.

Jefferson’s admissions process, too, paid special attention to including black and Hispanic students. Each year, it admitted many whose overall records made them promising candidates, even though their test scores and grades had ranked them far below the pool of 800 semifinalists, Domenech says.

Then the legal breezes shifted, leading to the school board’s 1998 decision to abandon the use of race as a factor in admissions. Domenech, who immigrated to the United States from Cuba as a boy, still sees the former policy’s results as proof of his conviction that the county teems with far more potentially successful black and Hispanic students than those captured in the semifinalist pool.

The superintendent points out that in the graduating class of 2001—one of the last classes admitted using the race-conscious policy—a girl who was ranked number 1,448 on the admissions test later graduated with a grade point average of 3.82, while the third-ranked applicant graduated with a GPA of 3.75.

“The thing that upset me in hearing criticism of my proposal was we would be diluting the pool and quality at Jefferson, and yet here is a school whose reputation was built on the shoulders of these very students,” Domenech says.

Around the time the school dropped race as a factor in admissions, the county decided that it could not finance Visions when its grant money ran out, since that could be construed as public funding of a race-conscious program. The local education foundation used its own money to launch a program called Quest, a science and technology enrichment program for black and Hispanic middle-schoolers. But many parents complained that since Quest did not prepare children specifically for Jefferson, it did little to promote black and Hispanic enrollment.

The struggle to achieve more racially diverse schools has been playing out across the country for several decades, as courts frowned first on race-conscious college-admissions policies and, more recently, on the use of race in assigning students to public K-12 schools. Two selective public secondary schools—Lowell in San Francisco and Boston Latin—have in the past few years lost high-profile legal struggles to preserve programs aimed at creating what they believed to be fair racial balance. Since abandoning those policies, the schools have seen the numbers of black and Hispanic students edging downward.

In Fairfax County, school board lawyers watched carefully as two cases from nearby Arlington County, Va., and Montgomery County, Md., wound their way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond. That court struck down race- conscious student-assignment programs in both districts in 1999.

Maree Sneed— no relation to David, the TJ student—is a partner at the Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson and represents a number of school districts on issues including desegregation. She notes that the U.S. Supreme Court has never decided whether the possible educational benefits of diversity justify race-conscious admissions, and that federal appellate courts have sent mixed messages on the question. But such courts generally hold school districts to a strict standard when they attempt to defend the consideration of race in student assignments.

The struggle to achieve more racially diverse schools has been playing out across the country for several decades.

“Whatever schools do, they have to do it very carefully,” Sneed says.

As districts become more aware of the risks of defending race- conscious practices, she says, they are increasingly exploring income-based affirmative action policies as a way to help disadvantaged youngsters obtain high-quality schooling.

Some experts view the legal tension over race-conscious policies as an opportunity to improve educational outreach methods that are flawed.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a Washington think tank, says research has shown that race-based admission policies tend to benefit upper-class and upper-middle-class students of color. Focusing on students from low-income families, he believes, would produce a fairer result.

“We ought to be trying to find ways to help the most disadvantaged, of any race, who show promise,” Kahlenberg says.

But some see the shift in the focus to economically disadvantaged students as an attempt to reclaim race-based affirmative action through a back door.

“It’s very hard for me to believe that anything else is going on [in Fairfax County] than an effort to get at racial and ethnic numbers,” says Roger Clegg, the vice president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Sterling, Va.-based nonprofit organization that opposes race-conscious policies in educational admissions and other areas. “What the school district should be doing is deciding what the best way is to measure academic ability, and let the chips fall where they may without worrying about the racial and ethnic mix.”

How best to measure academic ability is itself the subject of much disagreement. Many take issue with the test-heavy admissions process at Thomas Jefferson High. Some, including Kahlenberg, believe selective schools should use a broader definition of merit, including such factors as a student’s ability to overcome difficulty.

Parents closest to the scuffles around the racial politics of admission at Jefferson have experienced the debate in ways that are a deep and complex blend of personal history and political conviction.

They bring many views to the subject. Louise K. Epstein, a half-white, half-Japanese woman from the tony suburb of McLean, Va., recalls being bused in the 1960s from her apartment in a largely black public housing project in Staten Island, N.Y., to a working-class, predominantly white school as part of a school integration program. Epstein, a Harvard graduate who hopes her 7th grader will attend TJ, says other parents accused her of racism when she became one of the most vocal opponents of Superintendent Domenech’s geographic-quota plan, arguing that it would lower the academic caliber of the school.

“I’m defending a system that rewards merit,” she says of Jefferson’s race-blind admissions policy. “I know what I’m saying is politically incorrect, but I will no longer bite my tongue because someone calls me a racist.”

Idalia C. Duncan, a Cuban-born teacher whose daughter did not get into Jefferson, finds such a debate painful. “It angers me when people say [admitting more disadvantaged students] will water down TJ,” she says. “We Hispanic and African- American parents want to keep the quality, but we want help. We need help. We don’t all have the same advantages, even if we have the same aptitude.”

What the school district should be doing is deciding what the best way is to measure academic ability, and let the chips fall where they may without worrying about the racial and ethnic mix.

Judith Howard, an African-American, Harvard-trained lawyer whose daughter attends TJ, believes the admission argument boils down to whether public resources are being used equitably. But to her dismay, the debate laid bare some agonizing biases.

“This issue got completely out of hand,” she says. “The racist and classist undertones of a lot of these debates have really offended me. Some parents are up in arms because they are terrifically self- interested, and concerned their kids won’t get into TJ. They feel [admission to Jefferson] is an entitlement. People were saying the same kinds of things 30 years ago in Virginia when they were desegregating schools.”

Ying-Ying Li, a real estate agent whose son attends the school, says it is a “cheap shot” to bring racism into the argument about Jefferson. Li, a Chinese immigrant, says race has nothing to do with her belief that the admissions procedures should be left alone. The problem of racial disparity in achievement can’t be solved at the admissions office, she says, but should be addressed where it has its roots: in the home and in elementary and middle schools.

“You have to put more [resources] into low-performing schools,” Li says. “And you have to get to the parents. If parents don’t insist [that children] bring A’s and B-pluses back home, children won’t succeed.”

The importance of equal access to a good education is personal for Principal Lodal, who is white. In a soft lilt that recalls her childhood in West Texas, she talks about growing up poor, with a guidance counselor clueless about college-admission tests, delivered to Rice University only by the grace and determination of a father who researched the SAT and drove her two hours to take the test.

“If a child isn’t blessed with parents who have the financial resources or the time and information to lobby on his behalf, then that child can be left behind at an early point and it’s hard, if not impossible, to catch up,” she says.

Emmanuel Slade, who teaches senior government at Jefferson and advises the Black Student Union, says the plan to add 30 additional students to Jefferson “feels like crumbs” to him. He finds the debate “discouraging and disheartening,” like turning back the hands of time to a less racially enlightened age. He remembers all too well the day he became the first black child to integrate a North Carolina public elementary school in 1967. Soon afterward, his family’s mailbox was firebombed, and a carload of young white men tried to run him down, he says.

“I worry that when you are in a group in which you’ve always been entitled to all of the concepts of what the American dream is, that you become blind to the plight of others,” Slade says.

It wasn’t only the suggestion of racism but also of class bias that rankled some in this community.

“The comments of parents and others opposed to change at TJ were tinged with feelings of a kind you would not want to hear from citizens of this country,” says Robert E. Frye, a black school board member. “Like, ‘This is our school, and we worked hard to get kids ready,’ and it’s almost like, ‘We don’t want the unwashed or unlettered communities sending their kids here.’ ”

It is in this thicket of mores that Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology has tried to find its way, attempting to include a wider variety of students without depriving any of what they secured after years of preparation. Even as legal concerns barred it from addressing race directly, the Fairfax County district has been under pressure to improve minority access not only to Jefferson, but also to all its top-caliber programs.It is in this thicket of mores that Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology has tried to find its way, attempting to include a wider variety of students without depriving any of what they secured after years of preparation. Even as legal concerns barred it from addressing race directly, the Fairfax County district has been under pressure to improve minority access not only to Jefferson, but also to all its top-caliber programs.

The district’s own Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee complained bitterly last year in its most recent report that despite seven years of pressure, the county still had not significantly improved the proportions of black and Hispanic youngsters in its programs for the gifted. The Fairfax County NAACP is still wrangling with the district over that issue, which it outlined in a 1998 complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Numbers tell part of the story. Only 5 percent of the students in the county’s programs for the gifted last year were African-American, although black students make up nearly 11 percent of the district’s enrollment. Similarly, only 4 percent were Hispanic, a disproportionate number given their 14 percent share of the district’s makeup. Whites accounted for 73 percent of the high-caliber programs, though they make up 56 percent of the district’s enrollment. Asian students, meanwhile, reflected their district population with 16 percent in both gifted program and the student population.

‘The comments of parents and others opposed to change at TJ were tinged with feelings of a kind you would not want to hear from citizens of this country.’

District officials all the way up to Superintendent Domenech acknowledge that Fairfax County—like many school districts across the country—suffers from an achievement gap between students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and they say they are taking steps to address the problem. The district initiated the Young Scholars Program, which will offer accelerated studies for black and Hispanic children in low-income areas, and is revising its screening procedure for gifted programs to reduce bias against children who lack strong language skills, Domenech says. With $85,000 from the local education foundation, the district is redesigning the Quest program to better prepare black and Hispanic children for Jefferson.

Jefferson itself is increasing its outreach to low-income areas, distributing booklets to middle schools that outline TJ’s admissions test and urging middle school counselors to spread the word about applying. The diversity committee of the magnet school’s parent-teacher-student association has also begun reception/orientation sessions for parents of high-achieving minority middle- schoolers to familiarize them with Jefferson, and is sponsoring test- preparation sessions at local libraries.

Even with those concentrated efforts to level the playing field, however, some still worry that things won’t change much for disadvantaged students until there are more schools that can offer top- quality learning.

Kathryn A. McDermott, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, says debates over access to top-flight public schools like Jefferson, Lowell, and Boston Latin highlight the issue of educational quality more vividly than do debates over university affirmative action policies. The stakes are higher at such highly competitive high schools, since there are so few, McDermott argues, whereas if students don’t get into an Ivy League school, there are still many other high-quality colleges they might attend.

“The solution is to deal with the tremendous variation in quality that we have in our public education system,” she says. “It would take the pressure off these prestigious crown jewels of public education if the public felt they had alternatives that were just as good. For a lot people, it doesn’t feel that way.”

In TJ’s famously liberated hallways, where students sprawl on linoleum floors to study or chat without any need of a hall pass, opinion on what many call “the diversity issue” comes in all forms. delete delete deleteMakeda Kefale, 16, an African-American junior, jokes that all the school’s black and Hispanic students “can fit in one little conference room.” Taking a break from a hallway video shoot, she says that being in such a minority was “nothing different” for her, since her upscale, largely white neighborhood has few African- Americans.

Makeda’s classmate Micaela Cooper, also an African-American, was “shocked” by how few black and Hispanic students there were at TJ when she arrived two years ago. But she doesn’t think the admissions process should be changed. “Some of my friends and I think, ‘We made it to the school. Why should you lower the standard?’ ” she says.

Another opinion, lugging a huge backpack, is around the corner.

“I think it’s a great idea to add 30 more kids here,” says Mark Gray-Mendes, 16, a junior who is white, hurrying to his next class. “All it can do is enrich our environment. There’s plenty of room here for everyone.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Affirmative Reaction


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