Northern Virginia

Proposed Change in Admissions at Elite Virginia School Stirs Controversy

An admissions test and $100 fee to apply to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology would sunset in favor of a merit lottery system under a new proposal

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A new proposal could alter the admissions process at an elite Northern Virginia public high school -- but not everyone is in favor of the change.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County is currently ranked the best high school in the nation by U.S. News and World Report -- but for years, they've faced criticism for a lack of diversity. The current freshman class has nearly 500 students, but fewer than 10 are African American.

"There are students that historically are underrepresented at TJ," said admissions director Jeremy Shughart.

Under the current system, prospective students need a 3.0 GPA to apply. They must take an admissions test and pay a $100 application fee.

According to a new recommendation from Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Braband, admissions would be determined by a merit lottery system that prospective students could enter if they have a 3.5 GPA. There would be no admissions test or application fee. The lottery would be based on location, with students entering different pathways based on where they live, in an effort to ensure equal representation from all areas.

"I see this as really a good step in the right direction," said Karen Ampeh, the mother of three TJ graduates.

She says she likes the idea of a lottery and feels it would be more fair. "I've always been very disappointed that there weren't more African Americans at TJ, that they were so underrepresented," she said.

Other parents say they agree the school needs diversity but feel a lottery isn't the answer.

Over the weekend, these families gathered at the school to protest the new plan.

Demonstrators showed their opposition Sunday to a plan that would swap an admissions test for a lottery of qualified students as proposed by the Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

"I think it makes a mockery of the needs of gifted children," said Ana Cruz-Backman, whose kids plan to apply to TJ. She said she feels that students should be judged only on merit.

"My fourth grade son, the first thing he told me was that now he will not be able to get in to TJ because he's not lucky," she said.

The plan is still in the early stages, and nothing is finalized yet. The county will hold a virtual town hall Wednesday night to take questions from the community. Some families tell News4 they plan to protest outside Fairfax County Public Schools headquarters ahead of that meeting.

The school will present its final recommendations to the school board next month.

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