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Fairfax County School Board Member Admits ‘Anti-Asian Feel’ to New High School Admission Process

Thomas Jefferson High School, Alexandria, Va., July 1, 2020 (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A Fairfax County school board member admitted in a text message to a fellow board member that the district’s new equity-focused admissions policy for an advanced high school in Virginia has undertones of anti-Asian discrimination.

School board member Abrar Omeish texted board member Stella Pekarsky: “I mean there has been an anti asian feel underlying some of this, hate to say it lol,” according to correspondence obtained by non-profit Parents Defending Education. Pekarsky responded: “…I always told people that talking about TJ is a stupid waste of tome [sic].” Omeish replied: “Of course it is…They’re discriminated against in this process too.”

Rolling back its historically merit-based, race-blind criteria, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology made its admission policy in 2020 more subjective and race-based to foster a more diverse student body. The result of the policy has been a steep reduction in Asian-American enrollment, who have largely been replaced by other racial minorities. Last summer, school district officials announced that Asian-American students would make up 54 percent of the incoming freshman class in fall 2021, down from 73 percent the previous year.

The judging process relies on a scoring rubric comprising application elements including GPA, a personal quality assessment, and a problem-solving essay, but also a bonus section called “Experience Factors.” According to that metric, students can earn extra points towards admission if they are economically disadvantaged, an English language learner, someone requiring special education, or from an underrepresented school in the district.

In an email exchange, Thomas Jefferson’s admissions director, Jeremy Shughart, asked a school district official, Lisa Hruda, if she could “provide us a review of our current weighting and whether or not this would be enough to level the playing field for our historically underrepresented groups.” He added that white and Asian students are not considered historically underrepresented.

On September 27, 2020, Lidi Hruda, director of the school district’s Office of Research and Strategic Improvement, wrote to Shughart: “It is hard to know what exactly will level the playing field but my gut says that you may need to double all the points (and the total) so the applicants can receive up to 200 points overall for these experience factors.”

Around the same time, Pekarsky emailed Omeish that Brabrand “screwed up TJ and the Asians hate us.” Omeish responded that he was “just dumb and too white” to address the diversity deficit in FCPS properly. Omeish suggested to Pekarsky that Braband’s approach inflamed the fears of the Asian-American community and was laced with obvious racism. “Talking about pay to play and crap. So racist,” she said.

In May 2020, before the public was introduced to the proposal for an equity admission process, Fairfax County Public Schools staff presented the idea via a “white paper” that outlined the change in admissions policy to a closed school board meeting, PDE found. The statement of purpose for the program said: “FCPS expects that as a result of the changes, the student population at TJHSST will reflect more closely the diverse population in the jurisdictions from which students are eligible to apply for admission.”

Under the system, there are three different “pathways” for admissions each year: the first for 350 high-performing students, the second for 100 students judged on a combination of 50 percent academic merit and 50 percent external factors, and 50 “underrepresented” students. While FCPS has assured parents in the statement of purpose that no “quotas” exist for certain demographics under the system, the breakdown suggests the district reserves many spots for kids who might not have met the academic rigor requirements and standards otherwise.

The messages were publicized in a federal lawsuit by Coalition for TJ, a grassroots parent organization, against the Fairfax County School Board, accusing Thomas Jefferson High School, ranked America’s No. 1 high school by U.S. News and World Report., of discriminating against Asian-American students in its admission policy. The case, Coalition for TJ vs. Fairfax County School Board et al, will be heard in federal court next Tuesday.

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