NAACP, Local Advocates File Discrimination Complaint Against FCPS
Discrimination in Thomas Jefferson admissions process begins even before applications are due, complaint to U.S. Department of Education says
A complaint filed Monday by two local advocacy groups alleges Fairfax County Public Schools is perpetuating discrimination against black, Latino and disabled students through the admission process for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST).
The Coalition of the Silence (COTS), a group former school board member Tina Hone founded to seek equity for all students within FCPS, and the Fairfax branch of the NAACP filed the discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, asserting FCPS has committed "clear violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
At press time, FCPS had not yet had time to review the complaint, spokesman John Torre said.
While black and Hispanic students make up about 10 percent and 22 percent of the FCPS student body, respectively, they make up 1.5 percent and 2.7 percent of the TJHSST student body, the complaint says.
The complaint, written by Hone and NAACP-Fairfax County's Education Chair Charisse Espy Glassman, comes two business days after a Fairfax County School Board work session on the TJHSST admission process. At the work session, the board discussed both the lack of diversity and the declining math scores at the the Governor's School for science and technology in recent years. The board has charged FCPS staff to begin researching how to improve in both areas.
But the work session did not satisfy those who argue the process is discriminatory long before a student chooses to apply to the prestigious school, which recently earned No. 2 on U.S. News and World Report's annual ranking of U.S. high schools.
Sixty-four percent of students admitted to TJHSST attend middle schools with Level 4 Advanced Academic Middle School Centers. Most of the centers have limited diversity, carrying minority populations that don't reflect the county's demographic makeup, the complaint says.
"In essence, Fairfax County operates a separate and unequal 'sub' school system within its overarching taxpayer-funded, public school system," the complaint reads. "That separate and unequal subsystem is comprised of a network of level 4 advanced academic centers where Black and Latino students are grossly underrepresented."
More than half of students admitted to TJHSST's class of 2016 come from four FCPS middle schools: Carson, Longfellow, Rocky Run and Kilmer. Black and Latino student populations at all four schools are far smaller than the percentage of black (10.4 percent) and Latino (20.6) students across the county's school system.
"In a room that was packed to capacity primarily by TJ parents and staff, the conversation almost immediately veered away from concerns regarding the underrepresentation of African American and Latino students at TJ and towards discussion about how to ensure the 'right' FCPS students would get into TJ," the complaint reads, referring to the July 19 work session on the admissions process.
At the session, board members and TJHSST officials said an increasing number of admitted students are struggling with their math courses — a sign that the application process is selecting students not ready for the rigorous TJHSST courses.
In the complaint, Hone and Glassman argue that adjusting the admissions criteria to weigh test scores more heavily will only lead to similar disproportionate numbers at TJHSST.
"Test scores — without additional context and balance — are not a reliable predictor of future success," the complaint reads. "On information and belief, FCPS has never been able to produce longitudinal data supporting the myth that test scores have predictive value."
The Office of Civil Rights can choose to open an investigation after it reads the complaint, but is not obligated to follow up on the document, Hone said in a Monday phone interview with Patch. An investigation would reveal data that to date has largely been unavailable, Hone said, along with a much deeper look at the admissions process and issues associated with it.
"We felt it was our responsibility to sort of lay out with as much clarity as we could what we think the actual problem is ... a lot of the conversation has been around the edges but there's something much bigger going on that we have to deal with," Hone said. "We'll see what happens. I'm hopeful."
Vienna Patch Editor Erica R. Hendry contributed reporting for this story.
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