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Improving diversity isn't just about numbers

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/nadia_bormotova

I have been a token Brown girl at a top school.

I have also been an underestimated Brown girl at an underserved school.

Those two thoughts tap me on the shoulder, and when I ignore them, tap again, each time I turn my attention to the drama surrounding a Northern Virginia public high school that often ranks as the best in the nation.

In the past year, as the country has undergone a racial reckoning, Fairfax County's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology — or, as it's known locally, TJ — has experienced its own.

For decades, Black and Latino students have been missing in large part from the school's hallways, with both groups making up less than a single-digit percentage of the student body each year.

The school district has recognized that's a problem and made changes to the school's application process in an effort to address that issue. My colleague Hannah Natanson has written about the calls for change and the pushback against changes that have been made, but to fill in those who might have missed some developments:

In the fall, the school board eliminated a rigorous test and a $100 application fee. Then it went further. In December, it approved a "holistic review" process that calls for evaluating high-achieving eighth-graders through a problem-solving essay, a "Student Portrait Sheet" and their life experiences, such as whether they have disabilities, live in households that don't speak English or come from families that face economic hardships.

Holistic review. Student Portrait Sheet. Life experiences. The revised application process, on the surface, sounds like a thoughtful way to ensure more bright children, including ones from homes where parents don't have the time or resources to prepare them for a highly competitive test, get a chance to attend a top-ranked school.

It also sounds like a setup that is going to leave Black and Brown students having to constantly prove they deserve their spots, and blamed if the school's ranking slips.

To see that, we just have to glance at what people have been saying online. Those students haven't even been accepted into the school and already they are being blamed for bringing down the admissions bar and potentially the quality of education at the STEM magnet school. Among the phrases people have used online to describe what their presence will do to the academic atmosphere: "watering down," "dumbed down" and "wreck."

Some of that criticism is undoubtedly rooted in the racist, false belief that Black and Brown students aren't capable of competing and thriving in a rigorous academic environment. But to dismiss all of it as such is to let the nation's school systems off the hook.

When we talk about how school systems are failing students in neglected neighborhoods, which in urban areas are mostly filled with Black and Latino students, we often look at the obvious markers: dropout rates, illiteracy rates, teacher recidivism rates. But this is also true: Educational systems have failed, and continue to fail, to prepare many high-performing students from those schools to thrive at the highest levels of academia.

And they have done this for generations knowing the cost: lost human potential.

I saw this happen over and over again growing up on the Southside of San Antonio, attending honors classes at schools where most students were Latino and qualified for free lunch. I remember a middle school classmate who was Latino and could solve difficult math problems remarkably fast in his mind. Along with other students, I marveled at his ability and sometimes threw numbers at him just to watch him turn into a human calculator.

And yet, I can't recall ever hearing a teacher compliment his ability. If we had attended a wealthier school, I have no doubt he would have been pushed into more math activities and at the very least been the math club president our senior year of high school. Instead, the club existed in name only and I took on that role because no one else volunteered. I knew I would need a full résumé to apply to out-of-state colleges.

When people hear that I made it from a low-ranking high school to Stanford University, they often applaud it as a success story.

What they don't see is how unprepared I was when I stepped onto that campus. It often felt as if other students were given a handbook that I couldn't find.

I didn't know how essays should be formatted because in high school, without access to a computer, I had only written mine by hand. I didn't know that instead of spending the hours between my classes folding clothes at a retail job, the smarter move would have been to get a paid internship.

I didn't know — until I learned the hard way — that professor evaluations aren't really anonymous.

The effort to pull more Black and Latino students into the nation's top public school is noble and needed. But if Fairfax is actually invested in the success of these students, it has to really invest in them — and start doing so years before they fill out that application.

Changing the application process, and doing nothing else, will improve diversity numbers but not necessarily lives.

Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before coming to The Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism.

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