FCPS Can Learn from Successful Charter Schools

By Cheryl Buford

In response to another year where a miniscule number of Black and Hispanic students were admitted to the incoming class at Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology (“TJ”), Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Superintendent Scott Brabrand is proposing to scrap the entrance exams and teacher recommendations and admit 80% of TJ’s students by lottery. The other 20% would be admitted on vague criteria (i.e., “collaborator,” “creative and critical thinker”), with the only objective criterion being a problem-solving essay. In his presentation, Dr. Brabrand justified the lottery by citing BASIS charter schools as examples of STEM-focused schools that admit students by lottery and attain outstanding outcomes.

Finally, FCPS admits it can learn from successful charter schools! This is a welcome change, since Fairfax County has squelched all previous attempts to establish charter schools. The FCPS track record is particularly lamentable since charter schools often outshine their district school counterparts and according to a recently released Harvard study, low-income Black students have benefited the most.

Nevertheless, this TJ lottery proposal is destined to fail, unless the goal is also to fundamentally reduce TJ’s rigor and thus undermine its public purpose. Curriculum specialists are adamant that when building a program on an existing successful model, fidelity to the model is absolutely critical. Yet, FCPS is proposing to stray dramatically from the BASIS charter school model. Many BASIS schools are elementary schools and, where it operates secondary schools, they begin in 4th, 5th or 6th grade.  This way, schools can address student deficiencies before high school.

TJ is currently ranked as the #1 high school in the country, because incoming students “hit the ground running.” As freshmen, they take integrated biology, English and technology courses with a research paper and presentation at year’s end. By sophomore year, students continue a heavy load of math and science and begin considering which research lab (i.e. neuroscience, energy systems, quantum physics or prototyping) they will select for their senior project.

In their spare time, many TJ students participate in competitive academic Olympiad teams in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics or robotics. Over the years, TJ students have won numerous awards, including the Intel (now Regeneron) Science Talent Search, the most prestigious competition for high school seniors in the country and the International Science & Engineering Fair, the world’s largest international pre-college science competition.

If FCPS is serious about increasing underrepresented minority enrollment at TJ without compromising TJ’s rigor, it would be far better to approve a charter operator to run a rigorous STEM-focused elementary and/or middle school or create an equivalent magnet program.

FCPS could use a real “merit lottery” to identify the most promising elementary or middle school students from under-represented minority and other groups that would create a cadre of exceptionally well-prepared students.  These students would not only pass the TJ admissions test, they would excel in TJ’s rigorous STEM program.

That’s a noble cause that would unite the community, bring out the best in ALL our students and preserve TJ – Virginia’s crown jewel.

Cheryl Buford has worked in education on the local, state and federal level. In 2017, she was a Virginia House of Delegates candidate and in 2019 a Fairfax County School Board candidate. 

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