Your finish line and mine

June 20, 2020


As part of the Student Diversity Initiative at Jefferson, Kaur (left) poses for a club photo.

I once told a friend that I’m on free lunch and she burst out laughing and asked me why. We go to a school where less than 2% of the students receive free or reduced lunch. 

As a kid, my family moved a lot. My dad was out of the picture for several years and my mom worked long hours. I was a shy kid and not exactly a star at school. It was hard for me to pay attention to what we were learning. My parents didn’t know anything about the school system or how it worked. I was so jealous of all the kids who said their parents helped them with their homework. I hadn’t even known that parents could do that. 

Of course, I didn’t get into the Advanced Academic Program (AAP). I was very confused about the whole thing, but I figured that I just wasn’t all that smart. I was okay with that, because I viewed my General Education (Gen-Ed) instruction as very, very good. I’d heard somewhere that Fairfax County was super rich, so I figured that my education was top-notch. 

Imagine my surprise when I came to Jefferson and heard about my new classmates’ middle schools. Some talked about having two Jefferson information sessions. I thought my school was filled with clubs, but these kids seemed to have had more than 50 to pick from. They were all prepared and seemed to pick up what we were learning right off the bat. When I asked them how they learned so quickly, they gave me confused expressions. “Didn’t you learn this in middle school?” they’d say. 

I told them how in my classes, I saw a kid throw another kid headfirst into a trashcan, and how the most advanced we’d gotten in classroom instruction was fill-in-the-blank worksheets. To my surprise, their mouths fell open. I had expected them to reciprocate with stories of their own classes, but instead, I was met with the realization that my education was not, in fact, top-notch. 

As a low-income student, Kaur often feels that her chances for success at Jefferson are much lower than her peers.

The surprise didn’t really begin at Jefferson, though. The day before the eighth grade science Standards of Learning (SOL) exam, I sat in on the AAP science teacher’s review session. That was the best day of school I’d ever had. I learned so much and it was so easy to pay attention and stay interested, because of how much more I was being challenged. But it was a bittersweet day, because at the same time, I was shocked at how much more in-depth and effective AAP instruction was. I couldn’t believe what I had missed out on. I was supposedly smart enough to attend Jefferson, so shouldn’t I have been smart enough to receive AAP instruction? 

Fairfax County is indeed very rich, with its $3 billion budget, but the bulk of that money goes to schools with few low-income students. I learned this in middle school, when I asked one of my teachers why we were so obsessed with SOL exams. She’d spent so much instruction time emphasizing Virginia’s SOLs. And she wasn’t the only one. All of the schools that I’d attended before made an equally big deal of the SOL exams. My teacher told me that schools with higher SOL scores receive more funding. I was flabbergasted to hear this. Shouldn’t it be the other way around, since lower-income students tend to perform worse on standardized testing than their higher-income counterparts? Shouldn’t those with lower test scores have more access to resources? I guess having students falling behind is okay, because the test scores of the richer kids could save face. 

A program that tests the intelligence of students in elementary school will not select the brightest students, but rather, the most privileged. It’s no surprise that students who are Black, Hispanic, learning English, on free/reduced price lunch, or disabled are underrepresented in the program. Essentially, anyone who isn’t adequately privileged doesn’t stand a chance. 

During Jefferson application season, the AAP kids were very surprised that I was applying. They told me how they were much more likely to get in. I’ll admit that it made me quite smugly happy when those same kids didn’t receive admission and I did. 

But I shouldn’t have been happy, because Jefferson has been somewhat of a nightmare. I thought that going to a school with so many opportunities would be one of the best things to happen to me, but Jefferson only widens the gap between low-income and wealthier students. I once asked my friend how she’d taught herself to code so well and she told me her parents had placed her in several summer prep courses focusing on Java and Python. I put in twice the effort only to get half the results that other people get, simply because I have less money.  

Many students are able to complete prestigious internships at places like the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I remember scouring the spreadsheet with the list of summer opportunities and being so confused. How do people get their parents to drive them all the way to DC or Maryland every day? And then, as I glanced at the cost column, stunned to see numbers in the thousands, I realized that their parents probably bought them cars. 

Another day, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed, I saw posts about a program that allowed students to do volunteer work in Peru. I clicked on the link and immediately closed the tab once I saw the price tag. Jefferson makes getting into college especially harder for low-income students. You are competing against students whose resumes are vastly more padded than yours, when the largest difference between you and them is money. 

I once mentioned how badly I needed to find a job, and when my friend asked me why, I remembered all the times I’d been laughed at for being poor and kept my mouth shut. I do a lot of STEM outreach programs, and when the kids tell me that Jefferson just doesn’t seem like the place for them, I think about moments like that. And that’s because they’re right to feel that way. I had no idea how demoralizing Jefferson would be to low-income students, and as a low-income student myself, I can’t honestly recommend attending this school if you come from a low-income family. 

Jefferson made me feel like I didn’t have a right to my own heritage, because all the Indian kids I know have parents with degrees from top colleges that push them towards the same level of success. My parents are the exact opposite – they don’t have college degrees, their careers are in retail, and the only thing they want for me is to not “get kicked from store to store like [they] did.”

This is the mindset that low-income students develop – why try if it won’t get me anywhere?

— Gurleen Kaur

The most important thing I want you to take away from this is that the finish line is a thousand miles farther for low-income students. I was the only FCPS applicant that wasn’t in AAP that was offered admission for my class. When taking a look at the linked spreadsheet, you can see that only one student who wasn’t part of AAP, during my admission year, was offered admission to Jefferson. As a low-income and Gen-Ed applicant, I had an education nowhere near that of most other applicants and had to scramble to find resources. There was so much more I had to learn and figure out. My belief in myself was nonexistent because nobody thought I would receive admission, and adjusting to Jefferson was much harder for me. It’s not fair that I had to work so hard while others didn’t, and I wish I hadn’t. Jefferson destroyed my already lacking confidence and identity. 

This is the mindset that low-income students develop – why try if it won’t get me anywhere?

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  • R

    RyanOct 10, 2020 at 11:27 pm

    2016 alumnus here—I think the biggest take away from this article is not that TJ is unfair, but, as another commenter said earlier, everything leading up to it is unfair.

  • K

    KirstenJun 22, 2020 at 11:54 pm

    This is such a well-written, thoughtful, honest and important piece! I echo everyone else’s comments in saying thank you for using your voice to share your story and I encourage you to continue working to expose systemic racism in our education system! Don’t all students deserve access to high quality, effective, engaging, challenging instruction such as that which you experienced on the day you sat in on the AAP Science review class? This should not be dependent on ones economic status, disability status or supposed level of academic “intelligence.” I loved my time at TJ and had a wonderful high school experience there, but there is no reason why the benefits of TJ could not be expanded to all students across the county rather than limited to a segregated, elite group of students who are selected based off flawed and biased testing and admissions procedures. Thank you for saying the things that need to be said, and unfortunately, repeated time and time again.

  • M

    MaryJun 22, 2020 at 7:57 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story. This was so similar to my experience at a prestigious college (after attending Herndon High). As a nation, throughout their academic career (with repercussions for professional life), we are short-changing students who come from lower-income and less privileged households. I hope that you can hold on to and be proud of all that you have accomplished and to the strength that you have. I’m sorry there isn’t better and more equitable support.

  • H

    HelenJun 22, 2020 at 5:08 pm

    Thanks for writing this! Such a great piece with a great analysis of the various ways in which people are shut out- and also the insight that at this point people do not *want* to go to TJ- where do we go from here if we accept the agency of the people we say we are fighting for?

    As a side, if things haven’t changed much since I’ve graduated…. I think you might write better than many of your classmates hahaha (it that helps with the confidence) keep thinking, keep reading, and keep writing!! And keep fighting – hopefully with people who fully appreciate how talented you are <3

  • D

    Darcy PethJun 22, 2020 at 2:41 pm

    This is an excellent piece, and I hope Tj Today continues to highlight the experiences of both low-income and BIPOC students. This is badly needed.

  • S

    Shayna HumeJun 22, 2020 at 1:46 pm

    I am so impressed with what you have written. While things may never be equitable for all students, I am really impressed with your personal fortitude in face of it. I hope to see more amazing pieces like this from you.

  • R

    Rohit RaghavanJun 22, 2020 at 12:37 pm

    Gurleen, it’s quite a thing to be so self-aware at a young age. Your sincerity is actually a boon in this world. I hope you will go far! I’m sure that your story was met with confusion from your peers. (I’m a ‘96 grad, Indian; we struggled, but were probably considered lower middle class — I had things I hid from classmates also. I‘ve always felt so lost or behind, as if I missed the meeting where everything was explained. Sometimes I did).

    My friends from Jefferson remain among the best people I know, but so many of them had to leave that bubble to better understand how many different kinds of people there are — how there are many ways to contribute/succeed beyond just the metrics revered by our alma matter. TJ is just the beginning. You’ve got a world of choices ahead of you. Bet on yourself, and you’ll find your way through. I’m the first attorney in my extended family. It took me a while, but I paid off all of my student loans. Nothing I expected at 18 came true, but I am happy with life overall. Keep going, and know that there is a community of alumni rooting you on!

  • M

    MikeJun 22, 2020 at 12:07 pm

    I think what this really highlights is that while there may be problems with TJ admissions, the problem is much more systemic than that. Throughout our education, from pre-K up till high school, there are so many opportunities and resources that are available to higher-income, higher-educated families. I had two parents with masters degrees who could help me with my homework. And while we we were by no means the richest in our area, but we could afford cars and plenty of food, home computers, private tutors, extracurricular activities. By the time you apply to TJ, it’s almost too late. I think what the TJ admission process really shows is how the education system of Northern Virginia is failing to provide equal education to all.

    The SOLs are so backwards. You are completely right — the schools that are failing need MORE funding, not less. But of course then schools might try to under-report their successes to get bigger budgets. Really, the whole idea of linking funding to student performance is problematic.

  • W

    William YangJun 22, 2020 at 11:25 am

    2008 alum here.

    @Flint Even if your parents did not help you with your school assignments that doesn’t mean that you didn’t benefit from privilege coming from them. Living in a place where walking several miles home from middle school is a safe thing to do is a privilege in and of itself. Although I don’t know if Gurleen was asked to do this, not being asked to help work to help make ends meet for the family is also privilege. Heck, not doing chores so you have more time for homework is a privilege. Having access to a computer and high-speed internet is privilege. I hope as you meet more people who are not like you, you’ll start to see that many of the things you now take for granted are not things everyone has through no fault of their own.

    Gurleen, thank you so much for your courage in sharing your story with us. These are the stories we need to hear and understand to help change things for the better. Although it might be hard right now, I hope you’ll find out soon that your worth is more than the sum of the experiences you’ve been able to sign up for or what society has deemed in the moment to be valuable. It can be easy to forget that especially at TJ or even in college. I also had an enriching TJ experience but there is so much more to life and the world to see and learn as you move forward than what can be taught in a classroom or experienced in a club. Hang in there! Make the best of the situation that you can, while the world will never be fair or perfect or just, that does not mean that we don’t strive to make it more so where we can. I agree with others that more needs to be done at a system level to change the situation for the better since it leaves a lot to be desired.

  • F

    FlintJun 22, 2020 at 10:25 am

    @Emily Rea I dislike the idea that “no matter how hard you work you can’t overcome” kids with money. I graduated from TJ fairly recently with parents that didn’t help me, let alone know what classes I was taking. I never did a prep course or other supplemental learning, and to get home from middle school clubs I would have to walk several miles because of no late buses. Is it fair? Maybe not. But I graduated from TJ rather successfully, it was a very enriching experience for me, and I never regret my choice.
    This piece is well-written and makes great points, but the complete hopelessness of it all seems a little unwarranted to me.

  • L

    LGJun 22, 2020 at 9:40 am

    Gurleen, thank you for this article and your courage to speak out and share this important perspective. People need to hear the voice you give to others who may share your same experience at TJ and FCPS. Nicely done! Keep going!

  • A

    ABJun 22, 2020 at 9:15 am

    Li, it’s like having steroids. You still have to do all the training but your results come a lot easier.

    And apparently you develop some sort of superiority complex too.

  • B

    Brian RabeJun 22, 2020 at 9:08 am

    What a powerful narrative. Pieces like this are what change minds and, hopefully, spur change. Thank you for your bravery, I hope the FCPS school board and TJ administration and community reads this thoroughly.

  • K

    KevinJun 22, 2020 at 9:02 am

    Li, what a senseless comment to make. Sure, as a magnet school Asian kid, I’ve been “studying hard” ever since I popped out of the womb. That was just the life my parents handed to me, because they could afford to be middle-class in America.

    To trivialize the author’s struggle shows an extreme lack of empathy. Mind you, she started with less than almost anyone at that school, yet made her way in. You would understand that if you read the article.

  • V

    Vaughn VarmaJun 22, 2020 at 8:50 am

    I almost never leave comments on blog style posts like this, but I saw the other comment, and what the hell Li? Is that your takeaway? That she had to work hard and nobody else did?? And your response is “no, none of your observations have any merit, they were just working harder, longer than you”??? I shouldn’t need to say, since it’s so clearly and plainly written here, but she’s not saying that only poor students need to work, she’s saying that our education system benefits those with money far more than those without. Those with more money, all other things being equal (including effort put in by the students!), will make it further by merit of the fact that they can afford access to additional opportunities.

    Gurleen, this is an excellent piece, and lays bare a significant amount of the culture I saw, but was either only vaguely aware of, or couldn’t put into words, during my time at TJ

  • C

    ChioJun 22, 2020 at 8:44 am

    @The comment from Li: She’s saying that when she works equally as hard as the average, well-off TJ student, she only gets half as far. You’re right though – you can’t gain without pain but she and other low-income students go through so much more pain for perhaps only half the gain. Not because she isn’t as innately capable, but because she doesn’t have the same resources as the other kids. It’s like comparing times for two different races: her 400m time has to be as good as the other students’ 100m time simply due to a disparity in wealth.

  • E

    Emily ReaJun 22, 2020 at 8:32 am

    This exactly represents my experience at TJ 15 years ago. No matter how hard you work you can’t overcome the extra classes and parent support of people who have more privilege. My mother was a single mother and barely had time outside of work to take care of us let alone prepare me or support me through TJ. We could barely afford the required calculator let alone any expensive field trips or sports

  • B

    BenJun 22, 2020 at 8:28 am

    Its not that other studnets didnt work hard yikes. Its that the return on investment for their work was so much greater. Better teachers during the year, opportunities to learn during summer, after achool enrichment.

  • K

    Katherine FinkJun 22, 2020 at 8:19 am

    Thank you for speaking out. I am an alum (’94) and it is so disheartening to read about the barriers for students of color and students from lower-income families. I hope you keep fighting. Your voice is important and you use it well here.

  • B

    BrittanyJun 22, 2020 at 7:56 am

    Gurleen – thank you for sharing your story with us.

    Li – the author did not say that other students haven’t worked hard, she is sharing why it is difficult low-income students to receive the same educational opportunities as the vast majority of us who have attended TJ.

  • J

    JeremieJun 22, 2020 at 7:43 am

    Responding to Li: it’s not that others didn’t have to work hard, it’s that low-income students have to work that much harder and still receive fewer resources and opportunities. Did you read the article?

    Thank you Kaur, for sharing your experiences. Our system is flawed and needs some reprioritizing.

  • R

    RachelJun 22, 2020 at 7:21 am

    Li, the author has courageously shared a deeply personal story and your comment is tone deaf given what the author has written. “No pain no gain” is a toxic mindset when applied to people with vastly unequal resources. It is attitudes like this that make low-income students like the author feel so unwelcome at TJ.

  • L

    LiJun 21, 2020 at 6:48 pm

    Why you thought other kids don’t need to work hard. They may have worked hard long time before you started. No pain no gain.