Weighing 'Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs'

Weighing 'Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs'

Members of a Reston church advocate a plan to increase diversity at TJ High School.

The low numbers of black and Hispanic students enrolled at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology is drawing an internal discussion group out of a Reston church and into the community as an advocate for diversity.

Members of Washington Plaza Baptist Church's multi-racial congregation have met monthly since January to discuss their experiences with inequality and the civil rights movement. Now, the group is considering ways it can help Fairfax County Public Schools increase diversity at its magnet school.

"Our group talks about civil rights and civil wrongs," said Roosevelt Calbert, a Reston resident who leads the monthly forum. "And we're asking ourselves how we can move along the discussion about Thomas Jefferson High School's admissions."

Two months ago, a Blue Ribbon Commission of admissions officials from selective colleges and other magnet high schools recommended a long list of changes to TJ's admissions process that could increase minority representation.

Among the proposed changes are recommendations to broaden the applicant pool and allow admissions officials to consider qualities apart from test scores and grades earlier in the process.

By implementing the changes, Calbert said, the school system would be giving minorities and economically-disadvantaged students a better chance at a top-tier education. Last year, the school's student population included 1.1 percent black students and 2.4 percent Hispanic students.

The Washington Plaza Baptist Church civil rights group might soon begin to host community meetings on the proposed changes to TJ's admission's policies or it might start holding tutoring sessions for students and parents at the church, Calbert said.

"You have to start small," said Calbert, who was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s while a student at Alabama State University. "But we can make a difference."

BY HAVING more students from a diverse set of backgrounds, the value of a TJ education will increase dramatically, said Kay Shubert, a member of the civil right's group.

And with more types of people earning diplomas from Fairfax County's top-scoring school, she said, the whole community benefits.

"We need to make it so it's not just the well-off kids who are getting into Thomas Jefferson," she said. "Diversity of thought leads to amazing advancements in our society."

The issue of TJ's diversity was a natural choice for the civil rights group to address because its is a current, local problem affecting the entire county, Shubert said.

And by hosting tutoring sessions on math and science at the church or offering classes for working parents to better assist their child's education, the church would be making strides toward equality, she said.

"We want to support all students who have the promise and ability they need to succeed," Shubert said. "We want everyone to have an equal chance."

THE CIVIL RIGHTS group is comprised of roughly 20 members of the church, which is located at Lake Anne Plaza. It includes people of different races, ages and ethnicities.

"The whites try to understand us better and we try to understand them better," said Terri Blodger, a black member of the group. "Now we're able to empathize with each other."

The group — and its plans to become an advocate for diversity at Jefferson — fit squarely with Washington Plaza Baptist Church's mission of welcoming all groups of people regardless of race, ethnicity age or sexual orientation, said the Rev. Sandi John, the church's pastor.

The church already offers conversational English classes for Reston's immigrant population and other programs intended to promote equality and social justice, she said.