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Rallying to Protect Admissions Standards at America’s Best Public High School

Rallying to Protect Admissions Standards at America’s Best Public High School

This week, a group of about 200 students, parents, alumni, and concerned local residents flooded the sidewalk in front of America’s number-one-ranked public high school—Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. This was no back-to-school event. It was a rally to save the soul of the school itself.

The parents included Norma Muñoz, a Peruvian immigrant who told us she was there to “fight for TJ” (as the school is known locally). Other parents were from China, India, and South Korea. They stepped forward, one by one, to describe their families’ journeys—from marching in Tiananmen Square decades ago to arriving in the United States with only dollars in their pockets.

“I came here for freedom,” said Yuyan Zhou, a Chinese-American woman who’s spent eight years as a TJ parent. “Moral courage is the only solution for this madness. Stand up for your rights. Stand up for your values. Fight for the future of our students!”

And what is this “madness” Ms. Zhou describes? Since early June, a small but vocal group of TJ alumni have worked with activist school-board members, state education officials, politicians, and even TJ’s principal, to undermine the school’s selective admissions process. Their language consistently channels fashionable academic doctrines such as critical race theory (popularly known as CRT), which presuppose that all of society’s institutions are embedded with implicit forms of white supremacy.

The result is a proposal to replace the existing race-blind, merit-based TJ admissions system of standardized tests, grade rankings, essays, and teacher recommendations with a process based on random selection from among applicants who have a core class GPA of 3.5 or greater (and are currently enrolled in algebra). Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Superintendent Scott Brabrand has branded this proposed new system a “merit lottery.”

Twenty years ago, 70 percent of TJ students were white. Today, 79 percent are minority, mostly from immigrant Asian families, many of whom fled persecution and economic privation. This shift in TJ’s student body has included a large drop in white students, who now account for only 19 percent of total admissions; while black and Hispanic admissions have remained relatively unchanged, at about two percent and three percent respectively. The activists seeking to eliminate TJ’s meritocratic admissions systems attribute this latter result to systemic racism.

School officials claim that the new lottery-based proposal would serve to reduce the share of Asian students in the Class of 2024 from 73 percent to 54 percent, while increasing black and Hispanic representation. But TJ’s parents include a number of highly numerate scientists who manage and analyze data professionally. According to their calculations, the share of Asian students will actually be cut by more than half—to 33 percent, and will eventually drop even further. The share of black and Hispanic students would increase only marginally. And, ironically, white students would be the plan’s greatest beneficiaries, increasing from 18 percent to at least 45 percent of the student population. (School officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

As in so many policy areas, the battle over TJ has been affected by the culture-war fallout from the May 25th killing of George Floyd and the weeks of protests and violence that followed. Social-justice advocates argue that pursuing equitable outcomes in all areas is now more urgent than ever. But even before this year’s tumult, K-12 students across the United States have had their curricula diluted by the injection of materials promoting concepts such as white privilege, systemic racism, structural inequity, and white supremacy. The battle unfolding around TJ—as with similarly selective institutions in New York City and elsewhere—shows how these ideological trends pose a special threat to the integrity and quality of America’s best public schools. Their survival as citadels of excellence now rests largely with hastily organized groups of amateur activists—such as the ones I stood with this week in Alexandria, holding American flags and home-made signs with slogans such as “Individual merit, not group identity,” “Reward hard work,” and “Don’t gamble with childrens’ futures! Save STEM Education at TJ.”

On June 1st, FCPS administrators issued a press release announcing the TJ admissions roster for the class of 2024. Months earlier, 2,539 students had taken TJ’s first-round test, which measures applicants’ skills in math, science, and English. Of those, 486 students gained admission, including Muñoz’s son—one of the 16 Hispanic students on the list.

For Muñoz, it was a triumph. Her son was born in Peru, and they’d moved to the United States when he was just six years old. Though the boy spoke little English, he quickly developed a passion for science and math. Muñoz encouraged him, though she felt frustrated when teachers and counselors discouraged him from applying to TJ.

Her son’s class, she learned, had 355 Asian students—almost three quarters of the total. But Muñoz didn’t resent their success. They worked hard to get into TJ, she told us, and added: “I’m inspired by them.”

Alas, not everyone feels quite the same way. On June 7th, shortly after the Class of 2024 list was published, Blue Virginia, a blog dedicated to “Virginia politics from a progressive and Democratic perspective,” published a false headline indicating that “ZERO African Americans” had been granted admission. (Only on June 12th, five days later, did Blue Virginia publish an “update” admitting that the claim had been false.) An alumni group called “TJ Alumni Action Group” then weaponized the false news (and continued to do so, even after the group’s leaders had been made aware of the inaccuracy). On the group’s Facebook page, there were even calls for a complete dismantling of TJ.

The group’s messaging was tweeted out by the education reporter for the Washington Post, who later wrote a torqued article on the issue. State policymakers in Richmond seized on it. Atif Qarni, Virginia Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s Secretary of Education, urged readers to “check out” language inserted into the 2020 state budget bill relating to “Governor’s Schools” such as TJ (which is named specifically in the bill). Such schools, the bill stipulates,

shall set diversity goals for its student body and faculty, and develop a plan to meet said goals in collaboration with community partners at public meetings. Each school shall submit a report to the Governor by October 1 of each year on its goals and status of implementing its plan. The report shall include, but not be limited to the following: utilization of universal screenings in feeder divisions; admission processes in place or under consideration that promote access for historically underserved students; and outreach and communication efforts deployed to recruit historically underserved students. The report shall include the racial/ethnic make-up and socioeconomic diversity of its students, faculty, and applicants.

Closer to home, TJ parents received a letter from the school principal, Ann Bonitatibus (a white woman, incidentally), urging parents such as Muñoz to check their “privileges”:

I implore you to think about your own journey and discovery of race and economic advantage in America. My parents never had to teach me about what it means to be white. I never have had to worry that someone would look at the color of my skin and think I either may not be smart enough to learn or I should be exceedingly smart in a certain subject. No one has surveilled me in a store while shopping, or locked their cars or front doors out of fear when seeing me in their neighborhood. While I did not come from a family with economic means, the color of my skin has given me privileges that others do not have. Please think of privileges you hold that others may not.

The principal also suggested that the school’s racial demographics should more closely “reflect the racial composition” in the FCPS system as a whole—an ominous sign for Asians, who comprise only about 19 percent of students in the overall FCPS. Furthermore, Bonitatibus suggested that the school’s rigorous STEM curriculum be leavened with social-justice content regarding “diverse cultures and perspectives,” quoting an alumnus to the effect that “STEM alone is not enough.” Zhou said it all reminded her of China’s Cultural Revolution.

Behind closed doors, Qarni, the state’s education secretary, started meeting with hand-picked members of a new “task force”—members of which include FCPS Superintendent Brabrand; and FCPS member Karen Keys Gamarra, an open supporter of the TJ Alumni Action Group. Meanwhile, out in the open, FCPS school officials were observing Virginia’s “Racial Truth and Reconciliation Week” with a video session hosted by celebrity CRT guru Ibram Kendi. He earned $20,000 for his one-hour presentation according to the contract, almost as much as an instructional assistant makes in one year. On Twitter, Fairfax County school staff fawned over Kendi like he was a rock star, punctuating their tweets with #FCPSCall2Action.

We are both parents of TJ students who have become increasingly concerned about these developments. One of us, Glenn, witnessed the origins of this movement when he studied at Harvard Law School in the 1980s, at a time when professors such as Derrick Bell were establishing the early principles of CRT by adapting Marxist intellectual traditions to the issue of race. His co-author, Asra, spoke out at a virtual return-to-school session on June 18th, decrying the radicalized nature of the campaign by TJ Alumni Action Group activists, some of whom had threatened to “Occupy TJ.” (This was a time when swathes of Seattle and Portland were—and, in Portland’s case, remain—lawless arenas of violent protest.)

On August 11th, Asra published a column outlining previously undisclosed information about Qarni’s secretive task-force meetings. (Associated Press reporter Matthew Barakat published an interview with Qarni on the same day.) The minutes from the meetings, uploaded here, reveal unsettling non-sequiturs to the effect that the whole idea of gifted schools is “eugenically biased.” The attendees also considered a rejected 2018 legislative bill promoted by Democratic lawmaker Scott Surovell, who recommended shutting down TJ’s elite program. Proposed solutions included quotas, lotteries, and racially motivated score bump-ups justified according to the level of adversity an applicant has faced.

Parents seeking to protect the integrity of TJ’s admissions and curriculum have now organized their own group, Coalition for TJ, to advocate for diversity and excellence. (We’re both members.) Its first Change.org petition has almost 5,000 signatures. A second petition has almost 3,000 signatures. This has not gone down well with TJ’s influential critics—including Makya Renée Little, the president of the TJ Alumni Action Group, and a board member at the TJ Partnership Fund, a well-funded alumni nonprofit that’s dedicated to TJ and its diversity efforts. On August 14th, according to WhoIs records, someone with her name acquired the domain names “CoalitionForTJ” and “Coalition4TJ.” As of this writing, those URLs continue to redirect visitors to the website of Little’s group. (Neither Little nor the TJ Alumni Action Group replied to the authors’ requests for comment. Little is a member of Gov. Ralph Northam’s Virginia Commission on African-American History Education. Northam’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment either.) Fortunately, the TJ Alumni Action Group’s members failed to register CoalitionForTJ.net, which has become our website domain name.

More recently, Qarni launched a “listening session” tour with students, parents, and alumni at TJ and another Virginia magnet school. In the first, on September 8th, Qarni made the case for eliminating academic entry tests that inflict racial bias on “Black and Latinx” students, and replacing them with “holistic” admissions. He also described TJ’s gifted program as perpetuating a “false understanding of what merit truly is.” His moderator blocked many questions. In regard to a subsequent session, Qarni acknowledged to an AP reporter that he blocked TJ PTSA representatives from speaking; and for the last session, he stacked the panelists with speakers from the aforementioned TJ Alumni Action Group.

A similar tone was struck last week when FCPS publicly presented its “merit lottery” proposal, while launching what some interpreted as a veiled attack on TJ’s Asian students and parents. In a four-hour public session, the word “culture” was mentioned a dozen times, according to a transcript we prepared—with the superintendent speaking of “certain cultures” that are well-known at TJ. Brabrand also quoted the TJ principal to the effect that parents had spent “anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 a year” for test preparation courses—a claim that was news to the parents listening.

(This is not the first time that Asian parents in the area have felt singled out. When he was advocating for the abolition of TJ’s selecting admissions system in 2018, a retired FCPS school teacher whom Surovell had arranged to testify blasted certain groups of “ravenous” parents at Rachel Carson Middle School in nearby Herndon, whom she said got here “however they get here” and organized their own debate teams. Many parents at Rachel Carson are from India and felt like they were the object of her criticism. Not coincidentally, Rachel Carson happens to be one of the feeder schools targeted for a sharp reduction in TJ admissions under the proposed new lottery system.)

During last week’s four-hour video session, Brabrand lamented that “students of color” didn’t feel welcome at TJ—a somewhat absurd claim unless you exclude the school’s Asian majority from the “of color” category. A school-board member also raised the anecdote—which gets trotted out repeatedly at these events—of a black TJ student who reportedly said she’d wanted to “bleach her skin” to fit in as a student. The board member was apparently unaware that products such as “Fair and Lovely” have long been marketed to youth from India, too, under the false claim that fairer skin is more attractive. One hardly needs to attend TJ to internalize such ideas.

Certainly, the 200 demonstrators waving their signs at motorists outside TJ this week face an uphill battle: Brabrand plans to seek approval for his plan at the school board’s next meeting on October 8th. But no one’s giving up yet. Their next protest will take place this Wednesday, outside the Fairfax County Public Schools headquarters.

“We did good,” Zhou told me, as she gently folded the American flag she’d brought. “We fought for our values.”

 

Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter. She can be reached at asra@asranomani.com, or on Twitter at @asranomani. Glenn Miller is an attorney. Both are parents of students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Featured image: September 20th, 2020 protest at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Photo by Coalition for TJ/Antonio Martin Photography

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