How should a premier magnet school boost Black and Latino enrollment? A suggested lottery spurs fierce debate.

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Aware of the problem, several previous administrators tried to alter the admissions system, but none of their efforts yielded concrete results. For many — although not for the handful of Black and Latino students and graduates — the issue faded into the background until this summer, when protests over the murder of George Floyd began to spread nationally. Around the same time, the Fairfax school system released numbers showing that Thomas Jefferson’s Class of 2024 included less than 10 Black students.

Those twin events led to a huge spike in activism, as students and alumni formed action groups, began sharing their own experiences with racism at TJ and lobbied school leaders to take action. Again and again, they rehashed the statistics: In 2019-2020, mirroring years-long trends, the student body of roughly 1,800 was 70 percent Asian, 20 percent White, 2.6 percent Hispanic and less than 2 percent Black.

A few months later, Brabrand suggested the most sweeping changes to the admissions system — traditionally composed of a two-part math, reading, science and writing test — since the school’s founding in 1985. Under his proposal, the test is gone, as are the application fee of $100 and teacher recommendation letters. Instead, eighth-grade students from five geographical areas will be allowed to enter a random lottery if they meet certain qualifications: a 3.5 GPA and enrollment in Algebra I.

Those in favor of the plan argue it is the only practical, immediate way to begin solving a decades-old, intractable problem.

“It might be imperfect,” said Anant Das, 23, who is South Asian and graduated from TJ in 2015, “but the county has had 20 years to fix this issue, and they haven’t.

“There’s momentum now, now is the time,” Das added. “You can’t have another class of TJ students go through this.”