High School And Admissions Angst (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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High School and Admissions Angst

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:28:54
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virginia is widely considered to be one of the best, if not the best, public high school in the country. But TJ, as it's known to pretty much everyone in Northern Virginia, isn't getting top scores when it comes to its highly competitive admissions process.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:29:15
Thousands of students are competing for just a few hundred slots at the school and now, as Virginia reporter Jonathan Wilson tells us, some parents and teachers are crying foul as top students are told, thanks, but no thanks.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

13:29:29
3.14 pi. It's a number everybody remembers from math class and you might even remember that pi represents a relationship between a circle's diameter and its circumference and that pi's digits actually go on forever and never repeat because pi is what's called an irrational number. But even if you can get past 3.141592, chances are Saroja Erabelli has you beat.

MS. SAROJA ERABELLI

13:29:55
3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197...

WILSON

13:30:04
Saroja Erabelli, like a lot of eighth-graders, is a bit awkward. She's skinny and a little shy and when she does speak, it's softly, as if she's afraid of what she might say. But don't be fooled. When it comes to the classroom, especially if the class is math, Saroja is a star. She says it wasn't until a few years ago that she realized it.

ERABELLI

13:30:24
I think it was around sixth grade because that was when I started doing more challenging problems. Before, it was just arithmetic. I did it faster, but I didn't think much of it.

WILSON

13:30:34
It was around then that she first got the idea to start memorizing pi. She's now up to about a thousand digits.

ERABELLI

13:30:40
…48197450284102701...

WILSON

13:30:43
But it's not memorization skills that set great math students apart from above average ones. Eugene Wong teaches Saroja Algebra II at Longfellow Middle School in McLean, Virginia. He says what makes Saroja special is her ability to solve high school or college level math problems.

MR. EUGENE WONG

13:31:00
Which 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. And she is, without a doubt, one of the best I've ever taught at doing that.

WILSON

13:31:16
And that's part of the reason everyone in Saroja's life, from her fellow students, her teachers, to her parents, assumed she was headed to the county's nationally renowned magnate high school, Thomas Jefferson. Scores of students move on from Longfellow to TJ every year.

ERABELLI

13:31:31
At Longfellow, it's pretty much expected that everyone goes there. If you're even medium at Longfellow, you're just automatically in, basically.

WILSON

13:31:42
Sarmista Erabelli is Saroja's mom.

MS. SARMISTA ERABELLI

13:31:45
I was at work and, you know, I called her and I said, did you get the letter? And she said, I didn't get in. I said, are you serious? I have to look at that. I thought she was joking.

ERABELLI

13:31:55
I read the first sentence and it didn't say congratulations so I skipped further and it said, we're sorry, you're rejected. And I was really disappointed.

WILSON

13:32:07
Vern Williams is another math teacher at Longfellow. He's taught math to students in the Fairfax County Public School system for three decades. He's become a vocal critic of TJ's admission system and says Saroja's case is one of the most egregious he's seen.

WILSON

13:32:22
He thinks the problem could be a greater focus on getting underrepresented minorities into Thomas Jefferson. But Williams, who is African-American, says that noble goal is a failure so far, since the number of black and Hispanic students hasn't gone up.

MR. VERN WILLIAMS

13:32:37
But at the same time, the admissions process seems to discriminate against some of the best math-science students, not only in Fairfax County, but in the entire state.

WILSON

13:32:49
Tanisha Holland is the admissions director of Thomas Jefferson. She says TJ's process is the fairest it's ever been. Diversity, she says, is a priority during outreach efforts, but not during final admissions decisions. She says the school looks at GPA, test scores, teacher recommendations, a student information sheet completed by the candidate and essays. And for the subjective parts of the applications, essays for instance, two different, highly trained readers score each application.

TANISHA HOLLAND

13:33:19
And then if there's a discrepancy in the scoring, we introduce a third reader. So as you can imagine, with a three-reader system, it's a pretty fair and unbiased and equitable process. Based on my professional experience, this is the most objective admissions process that I have been involved with.

WILSON

13:33:37
Holland says cases such Saroja's are bound to become more common. Not because the process is broken, but because the competition is fierce.

HOLLAND

13:33:46
This year, we had over 3,300 applications and as I mentioned, we're 480 spaces. So you are definitely going to see some brilliant students who are in our semifinalist pool and it's unfortunate.

WILSON

13:33:59
Saroja's parents immediately started asking questions after Saroja's rejection. But so far, they've simply been told that all admissions decisions are final. Another thing Vern Williams would like to change. He'd like to see an appeals process. As for Saroja, she'll likely join her older brother at Langley High School, an excellent high school when measured against the rest of the country's schools. But for Saroja, it doesn't quite make up for the feeling of rejection.

ERABELLI

13:34:25
I didn't think it was my fault, but it felt like I just lost a whole experience.

WILSON

13:34:32
Ironically, the Erabelli's have heard that Saroja may actually have a better chance at standing out at Langley and thus getting into a better college. She can reapply as a rising high school sophomore, but her chances of getting into TJ will likely be even slimmer then. I'm Jonathan Wilson.

SHEIR

13:34:52
To see if you've got what it takes to get into Thomas Jefferson, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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