Opinion: Commentary: Reform at America’s #1 High School Is Good for All, Including Asian Americans

As part of the proposed 2020 budget for the Commonwealth of Virginia, Governor Northam charged all academic year governor’s schools to set diversity goals and develop a plan to meet them. In response, the Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) School Board created a merit lottery proposal to reform admissions at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ). On Sept. 23, FCPS Superintendent, Dr. Brabrand, held a town hall to present the merit lottery proposal and hear feedback. The merit lottery would improve admissions standards at what is ranked the #1 high school in the United States by raising the minimum applicant GPA to 3.5. In line with best practices at other magnet schools and trends at top universities, the plan would eliminate a standardized test that is demonstrably preppable and prone to amplifying bias. Through this reform, underrepresented minorities including Black, Latinx, and low-income students are projected to increase dramatically.

Some critics who called into the town hall tried to paint the movement for greater inclusion as a zero-sum game punishing Asian Americans and immigrants. This could not be further from the truth. The TJ Alumni Action Group (TJAAG) and the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium of Virginia (NAKASEC VA) unequivocally denounce this framing, which misrepresents facts and pits marginalized populations against each other. We do not claim to speak for all Asian Americans, who are not a monolith. At the same time, we are convinced that reforms to make TJ more equitable and inclusive will benefit everyone in Northern Virginia, including Asian Americans.

By narrowly focusing on the Asian American majority attending TJ, critics ignore the experiences of countless Asian Americans the current system fails. Lumping a substantial portion of the TJ student population under the broad umbrella term “Asian” erases the internal diversity within the Asian community. Reforming TJ admissions is an opportunity to expand access to local Asian student populations who are underserved, including girls, persons with disabilities, English language learners, refugees, and those from low-income families. For example, many TJ alumni cannot recall one classmate of Southeast Asian descent despite the substantial local population of Vietnamese Americans and other groups. Moreover, nearly 20% of Asian American FCPS students are economically disadvantaged, but only 2.1% of TJ students are low-income. Dr. Brabrand acknowledged during the town hall that some families pay up to $15,000 to give their children a leg up on the TJ application process. This is not a meritocracy nor is it acceptable for any public school designed to benefit the whole population, rather than just the privileged few.

Additionally, labelling equity reforms at a magnet high school as “anti-Asian racism” trivializes the myriad biases Asian communities face everyday. Asian Americans across the country are reporting violence or threats of violence as a result of others’ racist assumptions around COVID-19 risk and blame. Those with Asian heritage have long been subject to the “perpetual foreigner” myth and continue to be disproportionately doubted as American. Many Asian American immigrants also suffer from accent discrimination, lack of access to public services and programs as a result of language barriers, colorism where lighter skin is preferred over darker skin, the "bamboo ceiling", and more. To try and equate a genuine effort to make TJ more inclusive with serious racism faced by Asian Americans is a distortion of reality.

Beyond admissions, redefining merit must be part of improving the toxic culture in and around TJ, which unnecessarily harms all Asian American students. For some, rejection from TJ had long-term damaging effects on their emotional and mental health. For others, admittance was a pyrrhic victory that came at the cost of their elementary and middle school years spent on rigorous test prep to the exclusion of other activities. Still others graduate TJ ill-equipped as leaders and STEM problem-solvers in diverse universities and workplaces as a result of their narrow and exclusionary high school education. As part of the reform process, FCPS and the TJ administration must consider the whole system of which admissions is only one part.

Presently, the Commonwealth of Virginia, Fairfax County Public Schools, and other stakeholders have an extraordinary chance to do right for all young people in Northern Virginia by pursuing TJ reform that seeks to address the long-standing exclusion of too many in our communities. TJAAG and NAKASEC VA look forward to TJ, FCPS, and Governor Northam following through on their commitments and enacting real, lasting change.

This letter is submitted by the TJ Alumni Action Group (TJAAG) and the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium of Virginia (NAKASEC VA).

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