Many have asked for my take on the proposed changes to the Thomas Jefferson High School admissions process. Once one goes down the road of politically protecting groups based on race or ethnicity it leads to very strange and contradictory circumstances. The nation’s number one high school somehow needs to be fixed because current politically protected minorities are not adequately represented in the student body. Ironically the wrong (politically unprotected) minorities claim over 70% of the seats at TJ. Over the last few weeks, they have been demonized by the superintendent, the Thomas Jefferson Principal, and the majority of members of the Fairfax County School Board.
During my forty-plus years as an FCPS teacher, I always made clear that I would never view my students through a racial or cultural lens. I am part of the old school crowd who still believes, as did Martin Luther King, that one should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. The “One Fairfax” doctrine seems to suggest the opposite view. I sense that changing the TJ Admissions process is only the beginning. Every program for advanced/gifted students ranging from AP participation to AAP will be viewed through a racial lens instead of an academic/readiness lens. I feel that they will be diluted to the point of non-existence.
So what should be done to improve the admissions process instead of destroying it? Create a test that is prep proof (I could easily help with that) and truly test the higher level thinking skills needed for many of the advanced math and science concepts encountered at TJ. Keep the teacher recommendation as part of the process since middle school teachers truly know the capabilities, interests, and passions of their students. To suggest that they might show bias (as has been alleged by some) in their recommendations is an insult to every FCPS middle school teacher. Create a quality information/activities piece where students are asked to describe their successes as well as how they reacted to setbacks. I can discern between students who join Mathcounts or Science Olympiad in order to pad their resumes and those who join because they genuinely love math and science. Even if it means conducting interviews, the difference can be determined.
There are various groups of students who will apply to TJ. Some will apply simply because they view TJ as a ticket to a top university. Some have very little interest in TJ but will be pushed by their parents to apply. Then there are those who will apply because TJ is the only venue where they will be even remotely intellectually challenged. I have worked with and continue to work with such students. There are seventh and eighth-grade students who are able to understand advanced mathematical concepts in some cases at a graduate school level. Some qualify for the USA Math Olympiad contest which involves solving six proof-based problems during a nine-hour time period. Because it involves qualifying by receiving very high scores on the AMC10/12 and the American Invitational Mathematics Exam, many adults (perhaps most) with strong math backgrounds would not qualify. Students who qualify in middle school continue to pursue similar math competitions and activities when they attend TJ. The superintendent and the school board need to understand that such students indeed exist and need the peer group and intellectual stimulation found at TJ. I’m not sure how many students compose this group but they and other intellectually passionate, over-qualified students would be forced to rely on the rolling of dice if a lottery is imposed. The good news is that the strongest TJ applicants will not be stopped if they are denied admission to the school. Because of online venues such as AoPS, students will always have a place to be challenged intellectually and to communicate with other passionate learners. But why should we prevent them in any way from attending a special math/science school built for them? Only if other concerns are at play. I suspect that we all know what they are.
As for finding potential TJ-qualified students from all areas of Northern Virginia, I would be willing to help. Some teachers equate brilliance with putting commas in the correct place in English class and making very few careless errors in math class. I would gladly meet with middle and elementary school teachers throughout Northern Virginia to discuss the traits of intellectually gifted students. I would also gladly award scholarships to students from areas such as the Mt. Vernon High School pyramid where there are low numbers of TJ applicants. These scholarships would apply to attending the Math Enrichment summer camp and small group sessions held throughout the school year. I have made similar offers before.