We need more equitable admissions practices in Virginia’s “governor’s schools.”
Earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam appointed me to a task force with about 20 other individuals including Secretary of Education Atif Qarni to examine equity within our governor’s schools system.
Governor’s Schools were created in 1973 to provide an intense, summer academic experience to high-achieving students and were later expanded to full-year programs, including Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, which also serves Prince William and Arlington counties.
I have often expressed concerns about TJHSST’s admissions practices. Very few children from eastern Fairfax or Prince William are admitted. In the most recent freshman class, there were so few African American students admitted that Fairfax County Public Schools was prohibited from releasing the actual number.
This history means the student population in these schools is very unrepresentative of very diverse Northern Virginia. TJHSST’s current student population has fewer than 2% “economically disadvantaged” students as measured by students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The feeder, non-Fairfax County jurisdictions all are 27.3% economically disadvantaged. TJHSST’s current student population is now 70% Asian, 25% white and less than 2% Black and Hispanic, while its feeder jurisdictions are 18% Asian, 39% white, 11% Black and 27% Hispanic.
Over 25% of each class’s admissions come from two middle schools: Rachel Carson in McLean and Longfellow in Falls Church. Most of the middle schools in eastern Fairfax and Prince William have fewer than five or often zero admitted students.
The problems leading to these results start in elementary school. There is well-documented research indicating that minority children are often not identified or encouraged to participate in elementary gifted and talented programs. There is also a strong correlation between recommendations and the race of the teacher. In other words, low numbers or the absence of minority teachers is associated with fewer minority children recommended for gifted programs.
Economically disadvantaged families are not aware of such programs and do not advocate for their children to enroll in them. Schools with large economically disadvantaged student populations have fewer gifted programs.
We also heard some surprising testimony. First, gifted and talented programs arose during the 1960s in response to school desegregation efforts and also have their roots in eugenics research. Admissions to gifted programs are also keyed solely to intelligence instead of other variables such as creativity, problem-solving ability or other talents.
TJHSST’s principal pointed out that the school’s success – measured by standardized test performance -- has brought international acclaim and has resulted in “Thomas”-branded prep elementary schools in foreign counties that feed students into specific Fairfax County middle schools for admissions after families obtain visas.
Also, private test preparation programs pay students to remember and report back certain questions so they can use them to prepare students in $14,000-a-year TJHSST preparation programs that meet regularly with their own homework and curriculum.
Many have been aware of these facts for more than a decade and little action has been taken, which is why the General Assembly needs to act.
There are multiple admissions approaches that could be used. TJHSST currently uses an admissions test and an essay. According to the research, this type of admissions program is the mostly likely of any to favor family wealth over any other admissions factor, such as a child’s ability.
Let me be clear: We are not considering a racial quota system. That is unconstitutional.
We will consider recommending alternate admissions processes that cannot be gamed by wealthy or advantaged families. These might include a lottery system with equitable scoring systems; middle school admissions minimums or caps to ensure admission to top students of each eligible middle school; and allowing competition for remaining spots or other processes. We will also consider eliminating governor’s schools if they are unable to adopt more equitable admissions policies.
The writer is a state senator representing the 36th District, which includes parts of Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford counties. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.