Getting into Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is like winning the lottery, Suzanne Rheault, CEO of the test-prep company Aristotle Circle, told U.S. News in April, calling the No. 2 ranked Best High School the "MIT of high schools."
But that lottery may discriminate against African-American and Latino students, as well as those with disabilities, according to a federal civil rights complaint filed with the Department of Education on Monday.
Only 4 percent of the students enrolled at Thomas Jefferson during the 2009- 2010 school year identified as black or Latino. At nearby Falls Church and Annandale High Schools, both less than four miles from Thomas Jefferson, the percentages were 47 and 46 respectively, according to the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. All three schools are part of the Fairfax County Public School District in Virginia.
Both the admissions process at Thomas Jefferson (TJ) and the pipeline used by the district to identify gifted students are to blame according to the complaint, filed jointly by the NAACP and the Coalition of the Silence, an advocacy group founded by Tina Hone, a former school board member for FCPS.
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That pipeline begins with cognitive testing in the first grade. Students are tested yearly through middle school, and can be granted one retake at the request of a parent, guardian, or teacher.
The underrepresentation of minorities at Thomas Jefferson High School is not news, says John Torre, a spokesman for FCPS. "This has been an issue for a number of years, and the admissions policy has been tweaked a number of times to try and address this particular issue," Torre says.
The civil rights complaint is long overdue, says Hone, who adds she didn't start the coalition with the intent to file the complaint, but quickly realized she could not change the system on her own.
"One little organization by itself cannot move this mountain," she says. "I asked myself why no one has ever done this before ... It's a shame that it's been going on 30 years and they haven't fixed it."
African-American and Latino student enrollment at Thomas Jefferson peaked at 9.4 percent of total students in 1997, but has not exceeded 5 percent since 2000, according to the complaint, which notes that the school's admissions process changed in 1998 to focus more heavily on test scores.
The school's current process has two stages. First, students submit an application and take a two-hour admissions test comprised of 45 verbal questions, 50 multiple-choice math problems, and 2 essay questions.
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Students are chosen for the second round based on their GPA and score on the admissions test. They must have at least a 3.0 GPA, scored 30 or higher on the math portion of the exam, and have a total test score of 65 or higher to be considered for the second phase of the admissions process.
Those that advance to the semifinalist pool are evaluated on their math score from the admissions test, their math and science GPA, as well as essays, teacher recommendations, and a student information sheet that asks students to list their interests and activities and answer questions such as, "What is your best subject in school?" and "If you could spend an entire day learning about one topic, what would it be? Why?"
Those questions don't adequately account for the after-school experiences typical of low-income minority students, the complaint states.
"For many black and Latino students, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, their most significant after school activity may be babysitting their younger siblings while their parents work," the complaint states.
The disparity in black and Latino enrollment at Thomas Jefferson "comes down to the outreach efforts undertaken to try and increase the number of minority applicants," says Torre of Fairfax County Public Schools.
FCPS will wait to see if the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights deems the complaint worthy of investigation before it takes any action, he added.
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