A federal judge’s ruling that recent changes to the admissions process for Fairfax County Public Schools’ prestigious magnet school were discriminatory has inspired both praise and condemnation.
As first reported by The Washington Post, U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton issued an opinion on Friday (Feb. 25) finding that the elimination of a standardized test and other alterations to how students are admitted into Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) were made “to the detriment of Asian-Americans.”
“It is clear that Asian-American students are disproportionately harmed by the [Fairfax County School] Board’s decision to overhaul TJ admissions,” Hilton wrote. “Currently and in the future, Asian-American applicants are disproportionately deprived of a level playing field in competing for both allocated and unallocated seats.”
Hilton also called the school board’s process for implementing the changes “remarkably rushed and shoddy” with “a noticeable lack of public engagement and transparency.”
The Coalition for TJ, a group of parents and alumni that filed the lawsuit in March 2021, celebrated the ruling as a victory “for parents everywhere who are questioning the unlawful acts of runaway school boards.”
“Coalition for TJ is thrilled by Judge Claude Hilton’s clear renunciation of racism and discrimination and his powerful defense of equality,” co-founder Asra Nomani said in a statement. “For almost two years, our courageous families have battled an incalcitrant and racist school board and superintendent intent on using ‘social justice,’ ‘equity’ and ‘anti-racism’ to perpetuate racism and discrimination against Asian students and families.”
The ruling was lauded by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who made undoing the admissions changes part of his gubernatorial campaign, as well as advocacy groups like the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York.
Today’s decision reaffirms that TJ’s admissions should be based on merit. We thank the parents who stood up for their children. We will work everyday to ensure that every student across VA has a quality education so they can dream big dreams and be prepared for success in life.
— Governor Glenn Youngkin (@GovernorVA) February 25, 2022
FCPS maintained that TJ admissions changes approved by the School Board on Dec. 17, 2020, are merit-based and race-neutral, noting that the first class admitted under the new system still had a majority of Asian American students and a grade point average in line with previous years.
“The new process is blind to race, gender and national origin and gives the most talented students from every middle school a seat at TJ,” FCPS Division Counsel John Foster said. “We believe that a trial would have shown that the new process meets all legal requirements.” Read More
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Gone are the days of history textbooks being the dominant source for grade schools.
Now, Fairfax County youth have the chance to help create historical markers that the county has been adding to the area since 1998.
The county government and Fairfax County Public Schools are looking for students from both public and private institutions, homeschool, and community groups to submit ideas for markers as part of their new Black/African American Experience initiative to collect stories showcasing the area’s diversity.
“We’re really excited just to give students an opportunity to think like historians,” Alicia Hunter, the FCPS K-12 social studies coordinator, said in a county TV program. “So it’s no longer just the memorization of dates and events and people but more so engaging in critical thinking, inquiry, research and also evaluating primary and secondary sources.”
Ramona Carroll, a program manager for the county’s Neighborhood and Community Services (NCS), noted that ideas could come from youth groups, such as a Boy Scout or Girl Scout troop, a classroom, or just one student, helping “elevate untold stories of African Americans in Fairfax County.”
Ideas can be submitted through March 31, and the county’s History Commission will review finalists.
The county launched the Black/African American Experience Project on Feb. 1, coinciding with the start of Black History Month. To support the historical markers contest, NCS is collecting residents’ oral histories, and FCPS is providing resources to support student research.
FCPS announced on July 16, 2021, that it had partnered with the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to host the county’s first historical marker program.
“The inaugural program will focus on revealing the narratives and oral histories of our African American communities, whose rich history, culture, and accomplishments in the county, are underrepresented in our history books,” Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik and school board representative Karl Frisch said in a joint statement at the time.
They added that the county hopes to expand the program to include other communities in the future.
Students in Reston and Falls Church got statewide recognition last summer, when their proposals for highway markers commemorating local Asian and Pacific Islander history were among five winners of a Virginia contest.
Though they have cropped up with increasing regularity both locally and nationally in recent years, conversations about how to handle symbolic reminders of the Confederacy remain as emotionally charged as ever.
That was evident in the most recent meeting of Fairfax County’s Confederate Names Task Force, which has been charged with determining whether the county should rename Lee and Lee-Jackson Memorial highways.
“We have a nice taste of different people from different parts of Fairfax that want to weigh in,” task force chair Evelyn Spain said. “We value all of their opinions on whether this end result comes to change the name or not change the name of Fairfax streets.”
The two-hour meeting at the Fairfax County Government Center on Monday (Oct. 18) followed the launch of a community survey last week. Postcards advertising the survey are expected to roll out to residents across the county starting this weekend.
Also accepting public comments by email, phone, mail, and at four upcoming listening sessions, the task force will use the input to inform its recommendation to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
“I don’t want people to be back here in 30 years because we made a wrong decision,” one member said.
The Financial Cost of Changing the Names
Changing the names of both highways could cost Fairfax County anywhere from $1 million to $4 million, Fairfax County Department of Transportation Director Tom Biesiadny told the task force.
According to FCDOT, there are 171 Lee Highway signs along the county’s 14.1-mile stretch of Route 29 and 55 Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway signs on 8.4 miles of Route 50.
The cost varies depending on each kind of sign, particularly ones on traffic light mast arms or other overhead structures. If a new street name is longer than the existing one, replacing the signs will require more work due to the added weight, Biesiadny explained.
“What we’re going to replace it with does matter,” he said.
Biesiadny also reported that, based on estimates from neighboring localities that have adopted new highway names, a name change would cost businesses about $500 each to update their address on signs, stationary, and legal documents, among other possible expenses.
Other jurisdictions are looking at providing grants to cover businesses’ costs, according to Biesiadny, who noted that the county would need to conduct a survey of businesses to get a more precise estimate.
What’s in a (Street) Name?
For the task force, however, the question of whether to rename the highways hinges less on money than on what the names say about a community’s values and identity.