MS. REBECCA SHEIR
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
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
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
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.
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.
It was around then that she first got the idea to start memorizing pi. She's now up to about a thousand digits.
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
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.
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.
At Longfellow, it's pretty much expected that everyone goes there. If you're even medium at Longfellow, you're just automatically in, basically.
Sarmista Erabelli is Saroja's mom.
MS. SARMISTA ERABELLI
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Holland says cases such 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 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.
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.
I didn't think it was my fault, but it felt like I just lost a whole experience.
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.
To see if you've got what it takes to get into Thomas Jefferson, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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