Lawsuit challenges admissions changes at elite Thomas Jefferson High School

FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) — More than a dozen middle schoolers and their families have filed a lawsuit seeking to block changes in the admissions process at an elite public high school in northern Virginia that has been ranked as the best in the nation.

Fairfax County Public Schools, frustrated by a decades-long failure to attract Black and Hispanic students to the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, said last month it is eliminating a standardized test that had been a huge factor in determining who is admitted into the highly competitive school.

The new admissions process is not yet finalized, but officials have proposed a lottery system open to all students achieving a certain grade-point average.

The lawsuit claims that TJ, as one of nearly 20 “Governor’s Schools” across the state, is required under state law and regulations to provide education to students who have been designated as gifted through the administration of a recognized aptitude test, like the one that has been used in the past as part of the TJ admissions process.

Changing the admissions process to eliminate the test violates those procedures, the lawsuit alleges.

Srinivas Akella is the parent of a seventh-grader who aspires to attend TJ. He said at a news conference Thursday that he moved to Fairfax County in 2009 with the specific goal of getting his son into TJ, and that the son has prepared and studied for years to be ready for both the admissions test and the school’s rigorous curriculum.

“It just feels like a slap in the face” to have the rules change as his son approaches high school, Akella said. “All this hard work was to show his aptitude.”

The school system said it has not yet seen the lawsuit and declined to comment on it specifically, but said in a statement 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 lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Fairfax County Circuit Court, makes no mention of the racial implications of the admissions changes. But the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative legal group, wrote a letter to the school system last month warning that the proposed revisions may unlawfully discriminate against Asian Americans.

More than 70% of the student body at TJ is Asian American, and only tiny fractions of the student body are Black and Hispanic. The school board and Superintendent Scott Brabrand have cited the lack of Black and Hispanic representation and the need for equity as a major factor in the proposed revisions.

Similar debates are occurring at elite magnet schools across the country and at other Governor’s Schools in Virginia, particularly Maggie Walker High School in Richmond. Virginia Education Secretary Atif Qarni has been working to change the admissions process at all Governor’s Schools to improve diversity.

Many of the Asian-American parents at TJ have argued that the school is already diverse, and that the efforts to change the school’s racial makeup reflect an anti-Asian bias.

TJ has an international reputation and many of its graduates attend Ivy League schools or other elite colleges. The average SAT score at the schools exceeds 1500 and it was named the nation’s top high school in the most recent rankings from U.S. News and World Report.

The parents are represented by former Virginia Solicitor William Hurd, who led a legal effort several years ago to stop the planned closure of Sweet Briar College.

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