Students divided on proposed changes to admissions process

Admissions changes proposed by FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand to improve the diversity of Jefferson’s student body spark heated debate on their potential efficacy

Members+of+the+Jefferson+community+hold+up+signs+criticizing+the+merit+lottery+admissions+proposal+during+a+protest+on+Sunday%2C+Sept.+20%2C+2020.+

Members of the Jefferson community hold up signs criticizing the merit lottery admissions proposal during a protest on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020.

Rachel Lewis, Team Leader

A list of proposed modifications to the Jefferson admissions process and criteria was presented by Superintendent Scott Brabrand during a Fairfax County Public Schools  School Board work session on Sept. 15. The purpose of the changes outlined in his detailed proposal is to increase the number of students from underrepresented minorities at Jefferson. Within hours, multiple students, parents, and alumni had posted their reactions in the “TJHSST” Facebook group and other digital spaces. 

Fifteen different people posted about the proposed changes from 12:19 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 15 in the “TJHSST” Facebook group alone. Fifteen related posts have since been added (as of Sept. 27), and the comments sections are flooded with a wide range of additional responses, from surprised and confused to upset and angry. Many of the posts were written by passionate students who wanted to convey their thoughts, link to petitions, share information about upcoming town halls hosted by the School Board and the TJ Partnership Fund, or call others to action.

The admissions process changes proposed by Superintendent Brabrand include the removal of the $100 application fee, the math, reading, and science aptitude tests, the problem-solving essay currently completed during the semifinalist round, and teacher recommendations. The GPA requirement for applicants would be increased to a 3.5, unweighted, to include all core academic classes and courses taken for high school credit. 

Although senior Didi Elsad supports changes to the admissions process, when she first learned of the merit lottery proposal, she was far from happy. 

“My initial reaction to the news was just pure dread, because I knew exactly what kind of conversation this would spark at TJ. This is where TJ showed its true colors. It’s almost scary how some people will defend the status quo no matter what,” Elsad said. 

The FCPS School Board will vote on the admissions proposal on Thursday, October 8, 2020, which is three weeks and two days after the news release on Sept. 15. 

“It seemed incredibly rushed. The admissions proposal was introduced Sep 15th and it will be voted on Oct 8. In this span of three weeks, the community input has been limited to a few town halls, of which they have made clear that they are not answering questions in the chat nor the Q/A section,” junior Leon Jia said. 

Sophomore Anisha Talreja agrees. 

“When I first heard of the proposed “merit lottery”, I was, frankly, shocked… it seems that the county board wants to hurriedly push for a “solution” to the admissions process solely to boost their public image, and not to truly help underrepresented students,” Talreja said. “They haven’t done the research and they haven’t taken the time to listen to students, teachers, or parents involved — and it shows.”

Many students quickly took sides after the Sept. 15 announcement, either for or against the proposed changes. Students who are firmly against the proposal tend to feel that they were adequately prepared for the current admissions process, including the math, reading, and science aptitude tests, though they acknowledge that not everyone is able to access Jefferson admissions preparatory resources. 

“Personally, TJ admissions was not a challenge to navigate. I had a sibling who attended before me. However, a lot of resources needed to navigate admissions cost money. That is an unfair advantage given to more economically advantaged students,” junior Vivi Rao said. 

However, Elsad’s admissions experience was difficult, but not because of the aptitude tests or problem-solving essay. 

“To sum my admissions process in one word, I would have to say uncomfortable. I barely know any other Black people that were applying, and to make it worse, I had people telling me not to bother applying because I wouldn’t make it in,” Elsad said. “It’s really tiring constantly having to prove your worth to everyone around you.” 

Elsad believes that the current admissions process is a measure of economic and racial privilege, rather than academic potential. 

“There are plenty of people that could do well at TJ — more people than TJ has seats for… the admissions process is forced to rank students. The thing is, TJ is legally not allowed to take race or other barriers into account when looking at the student. How can we look at the whole student if we aren’t acknowledging the struggles they may have [gone] through?” Elsad said. “Suddenly, people who were able to afford those fancy summer camps, or those who had access to cool after school programs get the upper edge in the process.” 

If the proposed admissions changes are approved by the School Board, Elsad is worried about the hostile attitudes that incoming students from underrepresented minorities might face from older students. 

“There’s going to be an increase in bullying — or at the very least, tense relationships. Those students that got in using the old system will — for the most part — look down on people that got in using the new system. Additionally, any underrepresented minorities face high risk of being told ‘you only got in because of this new system. You don’t really belong here,’” Elsad said. 

Students who regard the proposed changes as a step in the wrong direction tend to say that selecting applicants through a merit lottery actually would decrease the level of advanced knowledge all incoming freshmen would have. 

“A lot of high level courses with those crazy pre- and co-reqs would probably get canceled. All in all I think there would be far fewer high performers… Since a lottery will take a normal distribution instead of the current system attempting to take the top performers we’ll likely move at a slower pace and cover material in less [depth],” Jia said. 

Other students don’t think that classes at Jefferson will have to adjust in any substantial way if students are admitted in the future based on a merit lottery. 

“I know for sure that I, as a freshman, was not equipped to thrive in a class like AP Physics, but freshman year is all about getting everyone on a level playing field and bringing the people who are less equipped to handle TJ’s rigor up to a level where they can thrive in advanced classes,” senior Quentin Lovejoy said. 

Junior Michael Fatemi opposes the merit lottery proposal, but he also does not think that the Jefferson curriculum would be altered, whatever happens to Jefferson admissions. 

“I think TJ will always be a special place, regardless of what happens, because everyone there is so passionate about STEM,” junior Michael Fatemi said. “I don’t believe that the TJ curriculum will be seriously affected unless there are changes for reasons outside of the admissions process.”

Students who criticize the proposed changes say they are a fast fix to increase the Jefferson student body’s diversity. Instead, they say there needs to be systemic change. 

“A bunch of affluent, privileged adults think that they know best for the students. Listening to the town hall, I don’t remember one [person of color (POC)] student from TJ or anywhere else in FCPS [speaking] about the issue,” Rao said. “The problem behind the lack of diversity in TJ is not [that] TJ is racist in admissions. It’s that America is racist in socio-economics.” 

Elsad also says that the current admissions process isn’t the only reason minority groups are underrepresented at Jefferson, but still believes that it is part of the problem. 

“Let’s think of a TJ acceptance like getting through a door of this building. Systemic racism results in [underrepresented minorities (URM)] unable to get [into the] building at all. That’s the pipeline we need to build,” Elsad said. “The problem with TJ admissions, though, is that there are URM at the door —  they just are unable to get through. That’s my belief, unless someone wants to explain to me why even though 8% of the initial applicant pool is Black, the final acceptances usually hover around 1%. I do not believe that such a small percent of the Black people that apply are qualified.” 

Superintendent Brabrand used Class of 2024 admissions statistics to show how the aptitude tests that Jefferson applicants take during the first round of admissions could be a “barrier for historically underrepresented students to move to the semifinalist stage” during his presentation to the School Board on Sept. 15.

Lovejoy foresees a positive impact on all future Jefferson students, no matter their race or socioeconomic status, if the proposal is implemented. 

“I think [the] class of 2025 and beyond will have a significantly less toxic atmosphere of learning since they can see TJ as an opportunity rather than a reward,” Lovejoy said.

Talreja, on the other hand, thinks that a merit lottery would take away what makes Jefferson such a unique and challenging place for students passionate about learning. 

“Public charter schools… serve as neighborhoods for attendees to learn, collaborate, and compete with others like them. Randomly selecting students from a larger pool with vague parameters will destroy the integrity of this neighborhood,” Talreja said. “It is a unique experience that has provided me with opportunities that I otherwise would have never had, some of the best friends I could ever ask for, and teachers that continuously expand my horizons. I want others to be able to experience this too.” 

Talreja, like others who acknowledge the lack of diversity at Jefferson but do not support the merit lottery proposal, proposes an alternative method to increase the population of underrepresented minorities at Jefferson. 

“Shifting the focus from societal issues to public charter schools’ admissions processes and hurriedly pushing for measures that will harm the very members we need to help is a disservice to the future attendees of our education system,” Talreja said. “Rather, we should focus on a comprehensive approach to target early education, starting with programs in all elementary and middle schools to increase knowledge of public charter schools and make the same advanced resources available across all communities.” 

Despite the backlash that the admissions proposal has received from many members of the Jefferson community, Elsad is hopeful that it will be approved and will begin a process of positive change at Jefferson. 

“Quite frankly, a change in culture has to come from a change in students,” Elsad said.” I don’t believe the culture will be a nurturing or healthy one for a while, but I believe that shaking up who gets in will help move us in that direction.”