How do you make the nation’s most selective high school into something more than an intellectual playground for clever Asian and White kids from wealthy families?
At a meeting on Thursday, the Fairfax County School Board will endeavour to respond to that question for its renowned 35-year-old magnet, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
The administration of the Northern Virginia school district is ashamed to have a public high school where only 1.7 per cent of the pupils are low income and only 5 per cent are Black or Hispanic.
It’s an atypical place and the annual data collecting since 1996, Thomas Jefferson High School usually has the highest SAT score average for any US school, public or private.
Fairfax County school officials have a bold proposal to alter the school’s entrance strategy, yet the details of their strategy are not as revealing as an early item, ‘History of Admission Changes’, in their September 15 report on Thomas Jefferson High School.
They list six earlier endeavours at reform. A new outreach specialist position in 2011 – holistic review, that means looking at the whole kid in 2013 – lower minimum semifinalist requirements in 2014 – a new problem-solving essay in 2015 – cutting back the outreach specialist to a half time position in 2016 and new entrance tests in 2017.
At the base of that page, in boldface letters, the district acknowledges that the modifications haven’t made a substantial impact on the application pool or admitted student demographics.
Their next endeavour is a drastic step. They want to increase the minimum core academic class grade point average for admittance to Thomas Jefferson High School from 3.0 to 3.5. Then they want to select the lucky winners in Fairfax County and four other participating districts based not on entrance test results, teacher recommendations and other quality measures, as they did before, but on random lotteries.
This has produced gasps in the Jefferson community and numerous people don’t think education should be run like a church bingo game.
Lotteries to pick students usually only employ the most prevalent public charter schools in areas like the District of Columbia (DC), where numerous Northern Virginians would never send their children to school.
There would be separate Jefferson lotteries in each of five similar regions in Fairfax County and in the other participating districts and the district’s report reveals that if it had been used when this year’s freshman class was chosen, 7 per cent of the admittees would have been Black, 8 per cent Hispanic and 10.3 per cent low income.
The question goes beyond the ‘who gets in’ but more a question of ‘How are these children prepared to go to these schools?’ And what we’re talking about is the middle school preparation of these students to succeed, not the actual high schools themselves.
In numerous schools, pupils are allowed to apply to any high school and are accepted, not on their ethnicity, creed or colour, but on their across-the-board performance academically, behaviorally and the readiness to learn are critical parts to entrance to schools, and it seems that school districts need to concentrate on the middle school preparation for high school to bring these numbers up.
One of the dark sides is the parental involvement or absence thereof and it’s a heartbreaking fact that parents for multiple reasons aren’t directly involved in their children’s education and this has a tremendous impact on everything.