Thomas Jefferson School Dome

The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is a regional magnet school on Braddock Road in Fairfax County. 

When Dinan Elsyad first saw the demographics of the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology’s class of 2025, she almost couldn’t believe her eyes. 

“I was really blown away,” said Elsyad, who graduated from the school this spring. “As soon as I saw the numbers, I almost started crying.”  

Thomas Jefferson, or TJ, is a Fairfax County magnet school available to students across Northern Virginia who meet certain admissions criteria. It is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as the nation’s number one public high school. 

Demographics for TJ’s newest class – released last week as students were notified of their acceptance for the fall semester – showed radical improvements in the school’s racial and geographic diversity. The numbers of Black and Hispanic students accepted shot up by 550% and 287.5%, respectively, compared with the class of 2024. Even more drastically, economically disadvantaged students went from just 0.62% of last year’s class to more than a quarter of the incoming class.

The changes to TJ’s racial makeup come six months after the School Board voted Dec. 17 to overhaul the admissions process. 

The overhaul included eliminating the standardized test and teacher recommendations from admissions requirements, while introducing socioeconomic status and other “experience factors” into the criteria. Timed essays and grade-point average, features of previous years, remained a part of the process. 

Fairfax County Public Schools also implemented individual-school quotas, dictating that the number of students admitted from each public middle school must equal 1.5% of that school’s eighth-grade student population. 

Dinan Elsyad Thomas Jefferson

Dinan Elsyad, who graduated from Thomas Jefferson this spring, was one of the student advocates for the changes to the admissions process. 

For Elsyad, a Black student who spent months advocating for the changes amidst ridicule from parents and students, the results triggered a rush of relief. 

“It’s very heartbreaking to put your heart out there for the world just to have people step all over it,” she said. “But now that I can see that it actually amounted to something, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.” 

However, while other demographics saw significant upticks, Asian student representation decreased from 74.4% to 54.4%. Glenn Miller, a TJ parent, argues that the admissions changes were intended to decrease Asian representation.

“You can’t really argue that this was race neutral when the system was structured in such a way that it would have a desired, racially balanced outcome,” Miller said. “We did modeling and predicted the outcome very closely to what actually happened. That’s a good indication that the county did the same thing and knew the likely outcome.” 

According to parents and students, the changes resulted in a large number of waitlisted students at normally top-performing middle schools such as Rachel Carson, Longfellow and Rocky Run. 

Julia McCaskill, whose daughter attended Rachel Carson, said that even though her daughter was accepted to TJ, she is altogether unhappy with the results. 

“This equity thing is just not fair. I assure you that those kids who got put on the waitlist should have been in. Some of these stories are very heartbreaking," McCaskill said. 

One of the students who was waitlisted, Krish Bommakanti, was less ready to blame his result on the admissions overhaul.  Bommakanti told InsideNoVa in the spring that he spent a lot of time preparing for the standardized test before learning last fall it would be eliminated from the process. 

“I was not as diligent as I should have been in my preparation. I do believe had I been more diligent and managed my time to an extent more than I did, I would have easily gotten in,” said Bommakanti, who attended Longfellow.

TJ alumni Rachel Lei, similarly rejects the idea of a “crusade” against Asian students, noting that the acceptance rate of Asian applicants this year is virtually the same as the rate from the TJ class of 2022. Lei is a part of the TJ Alumni Action Group, made up of former students in favor of the admissions changes. 

“Even though people say the process before was race neutral, the admissions test really wasn't,” Lei said. “Now we're getting closer to something that is race neutral.”

Whether or not the admissions system is in fact discriminatory will be up to a court to decide. In early March, the Pacific Legal Foundation – acting on behalf of the Coalition4TJ – filed a lawsuit alleging that the admissions changes are explicitly designed to reduce Asian representation at TJ. Miller said the case will be heard in court by early next year. 

Anuj Khemka is a rising senior at Thomas Jefferson, where he is the online editor-in-chief of the student news outlet tjTODAY. 

 

(5) comments

Phil Bellom

What a joke...Lowering standards is not the solution but hey, it's the new norm...

Janet Smith

Again, admissions test preparation courses should have been offered years ago, free of charge, to all TJ applicants. How many poor but intelligent children have been denied access to a specialized curriculum because their parents couldn't afford to spend thousands on test prep courses? Too many!

Stephanie Richardson

Lower the standards....lower national standards ratings. So sad to sell out just to satify a quota. That is why schools are far below other countries today. We will pay the price for such decisions.

Paul Benedict

How come you didn't mention the percentage of white kids accepted for the class of 2025? Did it not fit the narrative you want to project? Mr. Khemka, you may be a rising senior at Thomas Jefferson, but is that because you are an excellent journalist (which you may be) or is it because you are skilled in fitting in with today's journalistic standards, or more acurately, lack of standards?

Maybe your little brother or sister will be denied acceptance because of the admissions policy change and will have to go to a regular high school. The message is clear, Asian kids will not be rewarded for working hard because of the color of their skin. Rather than lifting Black and Hispanic kids up, we are shoving Asian kids down.

Janet Smith

Older TJ alumni are wealthy and can start a new private STEM high school if they desire. Changes were long overdue. I fault those responsible for TJ's operation for not making test prep courses available free of charge to anyone applying for admission.

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