DMV Magnet Schools Struggle to Be Diverse

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

This year, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST) was ranked the number one high school in the United States by the U.S. News. While the school provides students with rigorous coursework and beneficial opportunities and internships, it struggles with being a diverse institute of learning.

In 1985, TJHSST opened its doors as a Virginia-chartered magnet school in Fairfax County. In the last year, a total of 2,539 students applied from five different counties in Virginia. Only 17.8% of the total applicants, 486 students, received admission into the school.

“While TJ was pretty good when it came to learning and embracing other cultures, the Black and Latino culture wasn’t as noticeable in the school,” Aditya Krishnamurthi, a TJHSST Class of 2010 graduate, told Lenses.

Krishnamurthi, who attended Franklin Middle School in Chantilly, Virginia, described the change in culture when he went to TJ. “In middle school, I had friends of all different races and ethnicities, despite not being involved in a lot of different extracurricular activities. When I came to [TJHSST], my friends were almost exclusively East Asian, white, and Indian. The numbers were low at [TJHSST], so the odds of me hanging out with Black or Hispanic kids were also low. I’ve always felt like that was problematic,” Krishnamurthi said.

The enrollment data for TJHSST’s class of 2024 showed that 73% of the 486 accepted students were Asian, 17.7% were white, 6% were multiracial/other, and 3.3% were Hispanic. The number of Black students was too small to be reported.

The statistics on the number of Black students came as a shock to students like Tiffany Ji who is a rising senior at TJHSST. “It was pretty shocking and made me angry,” Ji said to Lenses in an interview.

Ji and four other TJHSST rising seniors—Didi Elsyad, Lisa Raj, Gurleen Kaur, and Sean Nguyen—have drafted a proposal that focuses on improving diversity and awareness at TJ through middle school outreach and an anti-racist curriculum. “Most students have kind of just accepted the problem and no one talked about it seriously, until it got to this point, so it was a much-needed wake-up call,” Ji said.

The students’ proposal is divided into four parts: changing the TJHSST mascot from ‘Colonials,’ sending underrepresented students of color from TJHSST to middle schools that send lower numbers of students to gauge interest, mandating a documentary about racism in America as part of the school’s curriculum, and encouraging more eighth-graders who are of minority groups to apply to make the system more inclusive. “The idea came to us when we first heard that zero Black students had been admitted into TJ’s class of 2024. Though that was later disproved, it got me, Lisa, and Sean thinking. Then, we saw the powerful articles that Didi and Gurleen had written [for tjTODAY] and asked them to join us in our efforts,” Ji said.

Struggles with diversity are not limited to TJHSST. Rather, they’re a staple of various exclusive programs around the DMV.

One such program is the Academies of Loudoun (ACL), a STEM education academy in Loudoun County, Virginia, which opened in 2018. It connected the pre-existing Academy of Science, Monroe Advanced Technology Academy and the new Academy of Engineering & Technology under one roof. The magnet school has a total student population of approximately 1,500 students. ACL’s demographics are relatively similar to that of TJHSST; Asians make up almost 75% of the student population, and white students make up 21%. In ACL, African Americans account for less than 0.5% of the student body.

In March 2019, the local NAACP chapter called for an investigation into ACL’s admission process because only one Black student out of 65 African-American applicants had received admission to the STEM program.

Aakash Mehta, a rising junior at ACL, believes that the admission system isn’t solely responsible for the lack of Black students at the magnet school. “If someone doesn’t have the right background or tools they won’t do as well on the admissions tests because of the limited resources they have access to, so the problem really isn’t with the admissions system, it’s the lack of resources and education,” Mehta said to Lenses in an interview.

Similarly, within the Blair Magnet Program, which is a part of Montgomery Blair High School in Maryland, the racial divide is once again in the limelight. Less than 15 percent of the magnet program’s population is Black or Hispanic, even though those same ethnic groups make up 60% of the student body at the regular high school. “The main problem is many kids who are living in socioeconomically deprived areas may not be aware of the resources, and for whatever reason, may not be seeking them out as much,” Mehta said.

The Blair Magnet Program initially raised concerns when it took control of a substantial amount of the main school’s funding. However, those concerns were soon overshadowed as Blair became an “elite” magnet program in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Harvard professor and psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Poussaint studies the psychological health of minority children. “The image is, the fewer Blacks and Latinos, the more elite the program,” Poussaint said to the New York Times.

Through Teen Lenses: What’s your experience with diversity (or the lack of it) at your school and how do you think that it has impacted you on a personal basis and your schools’ community overall? Do you think that the admissions process for magnet schools needs to be changed in order to be more inclusive and/or programs need to be put into place that allow accessible enrichment and test prep for all students?

“The Academies of Science is composed of mainly just White and Asian people, so I guess the diversity itself is relatively low. As to how this relative lack of diversity impacts the school and me personally, I don’t think it has really affected anything in any way. In general, programs that give all kids a chance to prep for the admission test would be very helpful. To boost diversity, it depends on how the problem is being handled. In most magnet schools, the percentages of those applying is really low. If we could find ways to introduce more programs that give all students a chance to explore their passions, we can easily counter the problem with diversity at magnet schools.” Sai Mupparaju, 16, Rising Junior at the Academy of Science, Ashburn, VA
“The lack of diversity at my school has definitely impacted the community in a negative way. A more diverse community would be beneficial in so many ways. At TJHSST, you don’t really learn a lot about the other cultures, because you really only come across people with similar ethnicities and backgrounds. I feel like it’s really important to learn more about diverse cultures. Plus, diversity gives you a chance to learn more about the world around you and how different other peoples stories are from yours. The lack of this [at TJHSST] makes us miss out on the unique things that come from having a diverse community at school.” Ananya Bandaru, 14, Rising Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Chantilly, VA
“Diversity is a blatant problem at our school and we see the effects of it everyday. From all White or Asian friend groups to clubs that are dominated by the Asian population, you can see the impact that lack of diversity has [at TJHSST]. And, with it being such an obvious problem we wonder why administration hasn’t taken urgent steps to make our school more inclusive. And, it’s not just the fault of the admissions process. As students, it is our job to take steps to make our community more inclusive by learning about the different cultures and educate yourself on how we can fix this problem.” TJHSST student who preferred to stay anonymous