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 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.
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.