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Competition And Controversy At Nation's Best High School

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Saroja Erabelli and her parents were disappointed to learn Saroja was not accepted into Thomas Jefferson High School.
Jonathan Wilson
Saroja Erabelli and her parents were disappointed to learn Saroja was not accepted into Thomas Jefferson High School.

Thousands of students are competing for just a few hundred slots, and now, some parents and teachers are crying foul as top students are being told, "Thanks, but no thanks."

Pi. It's a number everybody remembers from math class, and you might remember that pi has something to do with circles, and that its digits actually go on forever and never repeat.

But even if you can get past 3.141592, chances are, Saroja Erabelli has you beat.

Saroja is in 8th grade. She's skinny, and a little shy. But don't be fooled –- when it comes to the classroom, especially if the class is math, Saroja is a star. She says she realized it a few years ago.

"I think it was around the 6th grade, because that was when I started doing more challenging problems," she says. "Before it was just arithmetic – I did it faster, but I didn't think much of it."

Around the same time she got the idea to start memorizing pi; she's now up to about 1,000 digits. But it's not memorization that sets great math students apart from above-average ones.

Eugene Huang, Saroja's algebra teacher at Longfellow Middle School, says what makes her special is her ability to tackle college-level math problems.

"[The problems] may take an entire day or multiple days, and presenting that solution to your peers and to your teacher in a way that everybody can understand," says Huang. "And she is, without a doubt, one of the best I've ever taught at doing that."

That's part of the reason Huang, and Saroja's parents, assumed she'd attend TJ in the fall. Scores of students move on from Longfellow to TJ every year.

"I was at work and I called her, and I said, 'did you get the letter?'" says Saroja's mom, Sharmishta Erabelli.

The letter had come, but as Saroja told her mom, she hadn't been accepted.

"I said, 'are you serious? I have to look at that,'" says Erabelli. "I thought she was joking."

"I read the first sentence, and it didn't say congratulations, so I just skipped ahead further and it said, were sorry, you're rejected," Saroja says, "And I was really disappointed."

Vern Williams has taught in the Fairfax County public school system for more than three decades, and in recent years he's become highly critical of TJ's admissions process.

Williams, who is African-American, says the problem may be a greater focus on getting underrepresented minorities into the school, though the percentage of black and Hispanic students is lower now than it was in 2001.

"But at the same time the admissions process seems to discriminate against some of the best math and science students not only in Fairfax County but in the entire state," Williams says.

Tanisha Holland, admissions director for Thomas Jefferson, says diversity is a priority during outreach efforts, but not during final admissions decisions.

She says two different readers look at each student's grades, test scores, teacher recommendations, and essays.

"And then if there's a discrepancy in the scoring, we introduce a third reader," she says. "so as you can imagine, with a three-readers system, it's a pretty fair, unbiased, and equitable process.

"Based on my professional experience, this is the most objective process that I have been involved with," she continues.

Holland says cases such as Saroja's are bound to become more common, not because the process is broken, but because the competition is fierce.

"This year we had over 3,300 applicants and ... we have just 480 spaces," she says. "So you are definitely going to see some brilliant students in our semi-finalist pool, and it's unfortunate."

Holland says all admissions decisions are final. Saroja can reapply as a rising high school sophomore, but her chances of getting into TJ then will likely be even slimmer. That means she will likely join her older brother at Langley High School in McLean, another school ranked in top 100 public schools in the country. But for Saroja, that doesn't quite make up for the feeling of rejection.

"I didn't think it was my fault, but I felt like I just lost a whole experience," she says.

On the other hand, the Erabellis say Saroja may have a better chance at standing out at Langley, and thus getting into a better college.

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