FCPS stakeholders ponder TJ admissions changes

On July 19, the Fairfax County School Board held a work session to consider changes to the Jefferson admissions process. The meeting was open to the public, drawing a crowd consisting of faculty, families and others concerned with potential changes previously discussed in educational circles and in the media.

The admissions process has been receiving increasing negative attention from the community as a result of what was perceived as an academic decline and the lack of diversity at Jefferson.

Admissions Director Tanisha Holland and Asst. Superintendent for the Department of Professional Learning and Accountability Terri Breeden started the session off with a presentation on the evolving admissions process.

“My office will continue to ensure that the admissions process is fair and equitable to all students and has expanded outreach efforts,” Holland said.

Holland explained the changes that had been made to the original admissions process, which she said were put into place as a result of suggestions from stakeholders and the Blue Ribbon Commission for Educational Excellence.

Breeden walked the board through some simulations that her office had conducted to explore ways they could increase diversity at Jefferson. She presented five models – the old system, admission by zip code and cluster, alternate weightings to different parts of the application, and a lottery – but none of the models resulted in significant impact.

“Until we increase the diversity of the pool with more children who receive free or reduced lunch, more students from different schools, and those types of things, no matter what simulation we run, it will not yield anything more than probably what you’ve seen on our slides tonight,” she said.

While Holland and Breeden focused on the diversity issue, the board emphasized another point in their discussion: getting the right students into the school.

“There’s so much remediation going on at this school when there really shouldn’t be. Our students should be prepared when they get there,” Mason District representative Sandy Evans said.

Many of the board members attributed Jefferson’s academic decline to the new admissions process, not convinced that it had actually become more objective.

“Sixty-five percent of the weight of the students getting in is not based on math or not based on science,” Springfield District representative Elizabeth Schultz said, referring to the large weighting on teacher recommendations, essays and the Student Information Sheet. “It’s based on what they write, which is a liberal arts approach.”

Throughout the meeting, Holland emphasized the importance of the Student Information Sheet, which she said is used in place of a face-to-face interview to capture the students’ passion and interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

However, with roughly 15 percent of the class of 2015 in remediation and a nearly 100 percent increase in the number of juniors taking AB over BC Calculus, the board members were not so quick to accept this explanation.

“I think we may be talking about passion too much and downplaying ability, talent and achievement,” Evans said.

The school board voted that the weightings should be changed, but decided to wait until a later session to figure out what the actual numbers should be.

The group recognized they were facing a complex issue. Though they could not pinpoint one reason or solution for the problem, they explored a number of issues.

One problem that the board discussed briefly was the level of difficulty of the math test. Algebra 2 teacher Carol Rychlik analyzed the test with some of her colleagues.

Despite the requirement that all applicants be enrolled in Algebra 1 or higher by eighth grade, Rychlik found that the questions went no higher than sixth grade math.

“It really surprised me when I had a student that didn’t even know how to do a square root,” she said. “And this is a student that went through Algebra 1 Honors, Geometry Honors, and sits in my Algebra 2 class and can’t do square roots, and could not pass the majority of my tests.”

But with all the test prep classes available, making the test more difficult may not be the answer.

Some board members were also worried that the applicants may be getting professional and parental help for additional parts of the application, like the Student Information Sheet.

“As long as you have a test in place, whether it’s our existing test or any other test, the stakes are so high to get into TJ that I would argue that families will do whatever it takes to get their children ready for the admissions process,” Holland said.

The issue, they realized, was that just because the students were ready for the admissions process, it didn’t mean they were ready for the workload at Jefferson.

“Prospective TJ applicants should be preparing more for the TJ academic experience than focusing on select aspects of the admissions process,” Holland said.

On the other hand, some students are coming in at the right ability level, but lacking in interest for STEM fields. The board played with the idea of introducing another Governor’s School in the area, one focused on humanities rather than science and technology.

While it seemed like a good idea to many, the concept of a new Governor’s School was one neither Breeden nor the board felt ready to seriously discuss. While it may have a strong impact on the applicant pool, it will take a long time to establish another school and get it to the same level as Jefferson.

“We’ve been getting a lot of students whose parents and who themselves want to go to the best school in the nation and they might not have the strongest math background,” member-at-large Ryan McElveen said.

Currently, the Admissions Office is collaborating with groups such as the Chantilly Pyramid Minority Student Achievement Committee, the Fairfax County NAACP, and Jefferson’s very own Stembassadors program to help minorities develop an interest in math, science and technology.

They now have liaisons at each middle school and conduct presentations and workshops at traditionally underrepresented schools. They have also increased their presence online and send Young Scholars, a program in elementary schools to identify and nurture gifted minority students, quarterly newsletters.

However, while the number of African-Americans and Hispanics applying has increased by 28 percent, the overall number of admitted students remains much the same as it has for the past 10 years.

Though it’s still early to see any longitudinal data on the impact the outreach efforts have had, many board members thought they showed promise. Some thought that diversity was an issue best addressed at the K-8 level, and were equally, if not more, concerned with maintaining the successful learning environment at Jefferson.

The school board members are not the only ones who can have an impact on changes to the process. Alumni Association president Sonal Goda came to the meeting because she wants the alumni to stay updated and write in with their opinions.

“It’s great to have a lot of people show up so the school board will know that there is a lot of public concern about TJ admissions,” she said. “Hopefully this kind of support will be an impetus to take a closer look and figure out effective changes.”

In addition, the Fairfax County NAACP and Coalition of Silence, an advocacy group, filed a 17-page civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education on July 23. Tina Hone, a former school board member, is the founder and director of Coalition of Silence.

In an attempt to bring more attention to the diversity issue, the groups alleged that blacks, Hispanics and students with disabilities are at a disadvantage when applying to Jefferson.

They attribute this to the underrepresentation of the minorities at gifted schools and the admissions process at Jefferson, citing the Student Information Sheet as an example of an imbalanced playing field. The Student Information Sheet, the complaint says, asks for extracurricular activities, which students from underprivileged families may not have the time or resources for.

The Department of Education will now determine if the case deserves to be opened for investigation.

Until then, the school board is working with the Jefferson community to improve the admissions process. Some of the modifications, specifically regarding the weightings, may be implemented for the Class of 2017.

Whether or not the changes are made before the Class of 2017 applies, Principal Evan Glazer has high hopes for students. Though he acknowledges that some students may not be ready for the challenges at Jefferson because of their math background or motivation, he believes they have potential to be good students.

“I firmly believe that any student who walks through the doors of Thomas Jefferson can do incredible work,” he said, “if they’re pushed to their limits and are challenged in a way that they can excel.”