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New Class, Old Divisions

Demographic data for T.J. class of 2017 show lack of diversity at governor's school.

Even as federal regulators look into a civil-rights complaint about the lack of diversity at Thomas Jefferson School for Science and Technology, recently released demographics show that the number of black and Latino students is dropping. According to a report released last week by Fairfax County Public Schools, 8 percent of students who apply are Hispanic while only 3 percent of those who are accepted are Hispanic. And even though 6 percent of students who apply are black, only 1 percent of the class of 2017 is black.

"It's almost an act of arrogant defiance in the face of the complaint," said Tina Hone, former Fairfax County School Board member who helped file the complaint with the U.S. Department of Education. "They haven't done anything meaningful to address any of the concerns in the complaint."

Last summer, Hone worked with a group known as Coalition of The Silence to file a formal complaint with federal authorities. In September, officials with the Department of Education announced they would be launching a formal investigation into allegations that "In essence, Fairfax County operates a separate and unequal sub school system within its overarching taxpayer-funded public school system," the complaint charges. "The enormous racial and ethnic disparities evident in TJ admissions numbers and in eligibility decisions for Level 4 Advanced Academic Programs reflect clear violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and must not be allowed to stand."

IN A WRITTEN response to questions, Fairfax County Public Schools spokesman John Torre said he could not comment on the specifics of the complaint. But he said the Fairfax County School Board takes the issue "very seriously," and that school officials are looking for ways to address the "persistent gap in admission rates."

"They have actually claimed — untruthfully — that their hands are tied because of the complaint," said Hone. "Their hands are not tied by the complaint. If they make a bona fide effort to fix this problem, no one is going to excoriate them for this."

Torre responded that the admissions policy at the school, known as simply as T.J., has been debated and modified several times to address the diversity issue. And yet even though the division wants to promote diversity, Torre said, the district also wants to maintain the rigor and standards that foster a challenging learning environment focused on math, science and technology.

"This is not a problem that is confined to Fairfax County," said Torre in an email response to Hone's comments. "The underrepresentation of students from culturally and ethnically diverse socioeconomic status backgrounds in gifted and talented programs across the United States is one of the most critical problems facing public educators today."

THE DEMOGRAPHICS show that 10 percent of the students who apply to the governor's school live in poverty. And yet only 1 percent of the those accepted qualify for free or reduced lunch. Asians and whites are more likely to be accepted than blacks or Hispanics. Meanwhile, the school is pressing forward with a $90 million renovation that will increase the size of the building by 50 percent. The renovations include state-of-the-art laboratories for neuroscience, a wave tank for oceanography students and an optics lab equipped with lasers.

"For some reason, the School Board can find money for T.J. but they can't find money for the planetarium at Carl Sandburg Middle School," said Del. Scott Surovell (D-44). "They want some kids to have science, and other kids not to have access."