Last month, I learned that Gov. Ralph Northam proposed budget language stating that, “Each academic year, governor’s schools 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.”
Reflecting on my days at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology (TJ), and how I wish such a plan existed then, I enthusiastically shared this news with my fellow alumni in a Facebook group. The response I received reinforced my sentiments that this legislation is long overdue.
One alumnus asked rhetorically, “Why don’t I want my kids to attend TJ? This thread.” It caused me to question myself: “Based on my experience, would I want my kids to attend TJ?” While TJ is the number-one high school in the country, I was not sure.
I reached out to some of my classmates and other alumni with unique perspectives and invited them to share their TJ experiences and thoughts on the governor’s proposal.
We represented the perspectives of racial, gender, generational and ability diversity and discussed a range of topics—from why we applied to TJ, to how our experiences impacted our view of diversity in the workplace. Wanting to push the limits of the conversation, I presented a provocative question to the group: “If a standardized test resulted in a 70% pass rate for Black and Hispanic students, a 30% pass rate for Whites, and a 10% pass rate for Asian students, most would assume there was something wrong with the assessment itself. However, if the pass rates were flipped and Blacks and Hispanics had the lower pass rates, many would assume the students failing just weren’t qualified. Do you agree/disagree? Why?”
Everyone agreed with the statement, and one participant emphasized it would indicate a failure of the test writers, not the test takers. Another participant added that she believes whites and more privileged groups have a hard time identifying privileges, biases and microaggressions that are systematically placed in tests, admission processes, award ceremonies, etc., and often look to blame others when systems are changed and more equitable options are presented.
A 2000 TJ graduate expressed frustration with the Governor’s School test-preparation private tutoring market. Primarily, many Northern Virginia parents are beginning test prep as early as elementary school, while most minorities aren’t even aware of Governor’s School opportunities until right before the exams.
Despondently, all of us — save one — admitted we wouldn’t want our children to attend TJ or would have to seriously consider it. All the black alumni in the conversation chose to attend historically black colleges or universities. We yearned for a more inclusive collegiate experience — where merit was truly all that mattered — and received full scholarships.
The governor’s proposed plans will require everyone to take responsibility for their part. Administrators should pursue training and resources to help support minority student success and identify gifted minority students earlier. Parents should be more engaged and willing to advocate to ensure all students are appropriately challenged. Mostly, society should wake up to the fact that no race, ethnic, or socioeconomic group has a monopoly on intelligence. So whenever acceptance rates, pass rates, or promotion rates are imbalanced, as a 1999 TJ alumnus expressed, “Poor results indicate poorly designed instruments.”
I hope — for the sake of our children and future generations — Virginians can all work together in support of Governor’s Schools’ diversity goals.
Makya Renée Little is a Woodbridge resident and a member of the Virginia Commission on African American History Education in the Commonwealth.