Fairfax families, including Indian Americans, sue over admissions policy changes at science and tech school Thomas Jefferson High

Parent plaintiffs, above, allege in a lawsuit filed this week that the elimination of TJ’s admissions test violates Virginia law. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Hannah Natanson

More than a dozen families are suing Fairfax County Public Schools in a bid to reverse changes officials made this fall to the admissions process at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the county’s flagship STEM magnet school.

Thomas Jefferson, known as TJ, is often ranked the No. 1 public high school in the nation but has struggled for decades to admit Black and Hispanic students, accepting just a handful each year. Following nationwide protests over George Floyd’s killing this summer, Fairfax Superintendent Scott Brabrand announced he would enact aggressive changes to the TJ admissions system to fashion a more diverse student body.

Although that revision process is ongoing, the school board voted in early October to approve two significant changes. First it agreed to eliminate the feared, and famed, admissions test. It also voted to cancel the $100 application fee.

The 17 families filed suit Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Fairfax County Circuit Court over the removal of the test, calling it an illegal and arbitrary decision. The plaintiffs are requesting that the court issue an immediate injunction requiring Fairfax school officials to reinstate the test.

In a 30-page complaint, the families allege that the decision to do away with the test goes against Virginia law establishing and regulating Governor’s Schools – of which TJ is one – that are meant to serve gifted students. That law specifically requires that Governor’s Schools include a “nationally norm-referenced aptitude test (as part of) the school division’s identification procedure” for talented children, according to the complaint.

If the test is abolished, TJ “will no longer be a high school devoted to the education of gifted students,” the complaint reads. “Then the Fairfax County School Board will not adequately provide gifted students the educational services required by state law.”

Srinivas Akella and Hemang Nagar, both plaintiffs in the lawsuit, outside the Fairfax County Courthouse on Thursday. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Hannah Natanson

The parent plaintiffs also allege that the test’s cancellation has inflicted “irreparable harm” to their children, all of whom are middle-schoolers who have “been recognized by his or her school division as gifted” and want to attend TJ. Under the old test-based admissions system, the plaintiffs argue, these students probably would have gained admission.

“Wrongfully denied the opportunity for admission based on the correct legal criteria, the Students will be forced to attend high school elsewhere, forever losing the opportunity to attend (TJ) and obtain the incomparable benefits available from the best public high school in the nation,” the complaint states. “The losses they will incur are incalculable.”

In an emailed statement, Fairfax schools spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said the school system had not yet received a copy of the lawsuit and therefore could not comment on its contents.

“We can say, however,” Caldwell wrote, “that throughout the process of reviewing any potential admission changes to TJ admissions, the school division has broadly included a wide variety of voices, thoughts, and suggestions from stakeholders on how to make race-neutral improvements to the admissions process.”

The debate has roiled Fairfax County, a Northern Virginia suburb whose school system enrolls roughly 186,000. Although residents on both sides agree that the student body needs to better reflect the increasingly diverse county it represents, they differ vehemently on how to get there.

It also is part of a burgeoning debate nationwide. In the past several months, selective K-12 schools across the country have begun pondering how to improve diversity, stirring controversy and strong feelings among residents. Last month, San Francisco’s prestigious Lowell Hill School agreed to switch to a lottery-based system, although residents remained deeply divided over the idea.

TJ students and alumni have split into opposing action groups. The Coalition for TJ opposes the superintendent’s admissions changes and the TJ Alumni Action Group supports revisions such as abolishing the test.

Coalition supporters say the superintendent’s approach is ham-handed, discriminates against Asian American students and will ultimately place unqualified children in an academic environment far too rigorous for them, while robbing talented and hard-working applicants of spots at TJ.

At a news conference Thursday outside the Fairfax County Courthouse, parent plaintiffs took turns making arguments against eliminating the test. Speakers wore custom-made face masks bearing slogans such as “#SAVETJ” and “WE ARE TJ” and stood before a huge American flag.

“These tests are used to identify truly gifted students across the nation and in the state of Virginia,” said Srinivas Akella, 47, whose seventh-grade son is also a plaintiff. “For years, they have consistently delivered in ensuring that the truly deserving students are enrolled at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.”

Members of the Alumni Action Group, however, insist change is long overdue. In the past decade there have been at least eight attempts by Fairfax school officials to alter admissions and boost TJ’s diversity, all of which have failed. For 30 years, the student body composition has resembled what it looked like in 2019-2020, when nearly 3 percent of the student body was Hispanic and Black children made up less than 2 percent. That same year, Asian American students totaled 70 percent of the student body, and White students 20 percent.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey

Alumni Action Group members concede that the superintendent’s suggestions might not be perfect. But concrete action must come now, they argue, while there is momentum.

Tension spiked earlier this fall when Brabrand suggested replacing the TJ admissions system with a “merit-based lottery” that would have randomly selected TJ students from a pool of eighth-graders who met certain academic criteria, including a 3.5 grade-point average and Algebra I experience. After backlash from Fairfax residents and conspicuous lack of support from the school board, Brabrand backed away from that proposal.

Instead, the board directed him to present at a Nov. 12 meeting new and comprehensive suggestions for altering TJ admissions.

Akella, the plaintiff, agrees that TJ’s student body is too homogenous but disagrees with the superintendent and the school board on how to improve the situation.

In an interview, Akella noted that Fairfax’s teaching staff is overwhelmingly White. And he pointed out that the county’s gifted and talented program – the Advanced Academic Program, widely viewed as a path to TJ – is disproportionately White and Asian. In 2019-2020, Black and Hispanic students made up just 18 percent of the highest-level AAP classes.

Akella wants the superintendent to suggest deeper, more thorough changes that target the composition of Fairfax’s staffing force and focus on fostering a more diverse set of gifted students at an earlier age.

“We all want equity and the pipeline to be improved,” he said. “But you have to make changes at the bottom if you want to create a more diverse student body.”

His neighbor and fellow plaintiff, 46-year-old Hemang Nagar, said he agrees. But he also emphasized the personal considerations driving his decision to join the lawsuit: It’s all about his son, a 13-year-old eighth-grader in Fairfax County.

Nagar’s son fell in love with math at an early age, and has earned straight A’s in every math class he’s ever taken, Nagar said. The boy, who is now taking geometry and advanced algebra, is considering a career in engineering.

For over a year now, the teenager has spent up to three hours every Saturday evening studying for the TJ admissions test, relying on free, publicly available materials such as Khan Academy lessons to prepare himself.

But when he heard the test was canceled, he momentarily lost hope.

“He said, ‘What I’ve been doing, it’s nothing, all those hours I spent were a waste,’ ” Nagar said. “I had to convince him hard work never goes to waste. It will pay off someday.”

The boy believed his father but is profoundly discouraged and upset, Nagar said. Still, he is continuing to devote Saturday nights to test preparation, hoping that the Fairfax school system will reverse itself.

“I am joining this lawsuit on my son’s behalf,” he said. “He should get a fair shot.”

 

 

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