Yes, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson High School For Science and Technology Had a Hispanic Student Body President With a Learning Disability
If you Google “Anita Kinney,” you’ll find a prolific cancer researcher at a Utah university. That Anita Kinney is a genius. I’ve followed her career and lived in her daunting shadow for many years. She’s always ranked higher than me in search engine results — except for my brief brush with Internet celebrity in 2006, when Jay Mathews catapulted me to the top of the “Anita Kinney” rankings by quoting me on the front page of The Post.
The story was about my fellow classmates from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) who were rejected from Ivy League schools.
In more recent news, the NAACP and an advocacy group called Coalition of The Silence (COTS) filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging that Fairfax County Public Schools is discriminating against black, Latino and disabled students through its admissions process for Thomas Jefferson.
The complaint doesn’t describe what it’s like to be a person of color at TJ, or to be a person with a disability there. Seeing so many negative comments surrounding this complaint — some of them penned by my former classmates — has forced me to time-travel back to my TJ years. I asked Jay to let me guest-blog about my experiences as one of TJ’s “twice-exceptional” students, a term referring to gifted children who also have special needs.
I am Hispanic and have a learning disability. I was far from being one of the star students in TJ’s class of 2006, and I endured many taunts from students who told me I had only been admitted to the school because I’d “played the race card.”
I’m writing this because I’d wager that most members of TJ’s admissions committee would rather admit my more conventionally successful Internet doppelganger. Why? Because that Anita Kinney’s career choices reflect the school’s apparent mission, i.e., churning out the sort of scientists whose high school internships overlap with the high-profile funding interests du jour.
Yet my peers elected me student body president and Homecoming Queen my senior year, so I hope most of them will agree that I, too, belonged at TJ — even though I’m now an English major at Portland State University, a college destination that’s not even a blip on the admission committee’s radar.
I believe it’s time for TJ to put its house, and its admissions priorities, in order. The tone of the discussion surrounding the new lawsuit more deeply entrenches a prevailing perception at TJ that existed way back when I studied there: that the school’s black and Hispanic students were merely the beneficiaries of a reverse racism, produced by lowering admissions standards, that was intended to boost the school’s racial diversity for political reasons.
The comments that users have posted on articles covering this complaint trouble me. It seems that the most popular of their objections is the notion that the NAACP and the coalition are somehow advocating for lower standards for black and Hispanic students.
I’ve carefully examined the complaint, and I believe it makes a compelling case that TJ’s current admissions procedure does not do enough to remedy educational disparities that minority students face in Fairfax County Public Schools. I hope this complaint will compel our community to discuss how TJ’s narrowing focus on supposedly objective measures of performance ultimately compromises its stated mission “to foster a culture of innovation based on ethical behavior and the shared interests of humanity.”
My biggest concern is that test scores are weighted more heavily than holistic factors in the TJ admissions process, even though there is no established correlation between these test scores and academic success. According to this line of reasoning, numerical cutoffs are the only way to ensure race blind admissions.
But there is substantial evidence that these standardized tests favor students from upper-middle-class backgrounds, and that most underrepresented minorities in Fairfax County do not fall into that socioeconomic bracket. TJ’s admissions process bears this out: It’s well documented that admissions changes made since 1998 (when the school began to rely more heavily on test scores) have generally yielded classes with fewer black and Hispanic students.