Letter: No Enemies on TJ Admissions Front

Letter: No Enemies on TJ Admissions Front

To the Editor:

— I’m writing about the complaint filed by the Coalition of the Silence regarding the lack of representation of Black, Latino, poor and disabled kids at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, and about why this issue is worthy of immediate community action, regardless of the complaint’s final disposition.

1) Too many Fairfax County Public Schools administrators and school board members respond to revealed problems and areas needing significant improvement in dismissive ways. They:

a) Make changes because they already agree with the advocacy and there is little political risk (a.k.a. Full-Day Kindergarten, Real Food for Kids)

b) Make superficial changes and call it a day, then try to dismantle any small changes made (a.k.a. discipline reform, healthy high school start times)

c) Make changes when shamed (a.k.a. restoring honors programs, FairGrade)

d) Delay, obfuscate, sabotage, spin, circle the wagons, attack advocates as being too organized or not organized (and therefore "silent") and otherwise use its considerable resources to dismiss and ignore problems and disparage advocates as being irrelevant or "unpatriotic" to the school or county or economy

The fifth option, admitting to an ugly problem and authentically collaborating with advocates on solutions, is rarely chosen.

2) Just as with many other issues brought to it by the community, FCPS is not being honest, straightforward or holding itself accountable for the fact that too few of these disadvantaged kids are achieving as well as others relative to their populations and too few are fostered appropriately so they can be identified for and take advantage of advanced curricula, including advanced academic programs (AAP) and thence TJ and high school honors, AP and IB programs. The leaders in this system have had years to figure out how to make serious improvements, but they have hidden and spun or not even bothered to gather data and have excluded individuals and groups that could be partners in resolving this situation. Thus, we have a segregated system, as the data show.

3) The remedy for grievances in this case has little to do with TJ and TJ is not the main concern, but a harbinger. TJ admissions are the tip of the iceberg—the most visible aspect of a deep and cancerous problem. This problem is revealed elsewhere: in achievement discrepancies throughout the system and in the disproportionate numbers of disadvantaged children who are disciplined, suspended or who drop out.

4) We are not interested in tiny improvements. "Tiny" goes hand in hand with "death by a thousand cuts," which FCPS masters. Tiny improvements can disappear. This has happened with discipline and may be happening with honors programs as well. Incremental, years-long changes in helping the least among us are not acceptable. As FCPS delays, dawdles, and denies, individual starfish—Black, Latino, poor, and disabled kids—are dropping out. If they are not physically dropping out, they have dropped below their capabilities, given up or otherwise are simply accepted as underachieving, with concomitant results.

COTS has chosen to file a complaint and is taking an aggressive stance. That should make nobody in this community uncomfortable because it is the only language this system responds to. FairGrade did the same thing, only it had to raise a ruckus and "mob" the board to get heard. Restore Honors was the result of a similarly aggressive approach. No discipline changes would even have been considered if Nick Stuban hadn’t committed suicide followed by media attention, and then if many of us seeking reform for years hadn’t shamed FCPS into some action. I can guarantee this is not how we advocates want to function, but our hands are forced. We are continuously kept away from the table.

5) Bigots win if they succeed in pitting groups against each other. For example, I do not believe for a second that Asians and Black/Latinos and Whites are enemies on the TJ admissions front, nor that the goals of the Fairfax County Association of the Gifted and COTS are incompatible, as some imply. All want the very best qualified students to be admitted to TJ and AAPs, and want standards there to remain high. They want ALL students to be given every single opportunity available to have a shot at these programs. All want supports for gifted students—who can be as discriminated against as any other student. None of this pits kids against each other; adults set up the rules by which students play. There is a huge overlap in this Venn diagram, and nobody would want solutions at the expense of others.

6) Since when should we accept any response that "we are doing all we can?” The numbers show it just isn’t so. Experience with other advocacy issues, such as unhealthy school start times, provides us a strong caution: The lack of integrity with which FCPS has addressed school start times is endemic to how too many of our hired and elected officials operate. An honest process could bring community members together instead of creating rifts. It could begin to remedy several fundamental concerns related to student health and well-being, including homework, teacher and student workload; physical and mental health; drug and alcohol use; use of community spaces; car accidents; and discipline. Discipline reform is similar: Collaborate on core issues there, and we get at achievement gaps, student well-being, and creating positive learning cultures. Address socioeconomic issues, and we get at discipline issues.

Everything is interconnected, and this county is failing in addressing issues as comprehensively as it could and should. Any issue dealt with sincerely and without fear would further mutually beneficial ends.

7) FCPS is notoriously awful at finding and addressing root causes, and the entire community is often left to speculate—and therefore bicker—about cause-effect. For example, some say the elementary school curriculum may be to blame for under-representation at TJ and, indeed, it may be one root cause, but we cannot honestly say so. There has been no inquiry with any integrity.

8) Prejudice exists. I argue that one of the very core issues is that FCPS administrators and some school board are refusing to recognize an inherent prejudice in the system. It exists somewhere, somehow, and probably in multiple forms. Raw, fearless sunlight must be poured on this entire issue to reveal the extent to which prejudice—and any cause—exists and the necessary and possible remedies.

This is a particularly emotional issue because nobody wants to be implicated as "racist." We—honorable humans—get defensive when race issues arise. We have to get beyond this raw response. 

Prejudice is inherent in every human being; it's one way we survive. (Anybody who has taken psychology or anthropology understands this.) It is not a character flaw, unless it is left unscrutinized or deliberately ignored when it hurts others.

By "prejudice," I mean "pre-judgment:" in this situation, the views people bring with them into the school system and by which they judge children, their families, their cultures, and personal ability to work with kids whose circumstances are not familiar to them. We recognize "prejudice" like this in many forms unrelated to race: people have previous judgments about child and adolescent development, for example. Such judgment is based on knowledge, upbringing, and cultures; on scientific literacy; on many factors. It comes to bear in making decisions about policies, procedures and approaches. Peoples' views on race and socioeconomics and disabilities do not escape these kinds of pre-judgments. We remedy these through awareness, training, inclusion, and other means. Perhaps that must be part of a root solution to what's happening with the demographic we’re discussing. 

It is incumbent upon us to admit a problem exists and look at every possible cause and solution. FCPS gets an "F" for this process. COTS has called them on it; let’s join them in seeking a remedy.

Caroline G. Hemenway