Students, Parents with Moral Courage Protest War on No. 1 School

Call 'Merit Lottery' a 'Racist Oxymoron'

Check back for updates with more photos, videos and quotes from the protest. The next rally by Coalition for TJ, a network of parents, students, alumni and community members advocating for diversity and excellence at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology will be Wednesday, September 23, 5 p.m. - 6 p.m., at Gatehouse, 8115 Gatehouse Road, Falls Church, Va., headquarters for Fairfax County Public Schools. They are calling the protest a Citizens Town Hall and holding it before a virtual town hall by local school superintendent Scott Brabrand. Credit for all photos: Antonio Martin Photography

By Asra Q. Nomani

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — About 200 parents, students and local citizens — many of them immigrants to America — protested yesterday against proposed admissions changes to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the majestic dome of America’s No. 1 high school above them against a bright blue sky and the U.S. flag behind them, a symbolic affirmation of democracy in action.

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With origin stories from Beijing, China, to Hyderabad, India, these parents, students and community members spoke with passion, courage and commitment to the one thing that connected them: belief in the American Dream.

Their narratives underscored a critical legal issue that raises serious questions about the efforts by the Commonwealth of Virginia and Fairfax County Public Schools to social engineer the racial demographic of TJ, as the school is known. State and county officials have made no bones about the fact that an intended consequence of a new admissions strategy unveiled last week, removing a merit-based admissions test with a lottery, is to slash the number of Asians at the school — numbering about 79 percent now — to more closely match the demographics of the county, where Asians number about 19 percent. That impact is something that, the protestors said, reveals government officials are targeting and discriminating against people based not only on race but also national origin, in apparent violation of U.S. civil rights laws.

A protestor called the “merit lottery” unveiled by the school system a “racist oxymoron.”

In moving speech after speech, the protestors told their stories and perspectives, mostly overlooked in the secretive admissions policy discussions that have been occurring since at least June to overhaul admissions to TJ. A veteran of protests as a journalist, this was one of the few times that I stood, with pride, not only as a spectator but as a parent advocate. (My son is a senior at TJ.) I called upon parents and students to be unapologetic in their belief in hard work, education, merit and the American Dream. When I looked out, I saw a sea of amazing and brave parents, students and community members who had overcome fears of retaliation to come out to protest the Fairfax County plan. Children climbed upon the base of iconic sculpture, one of them holding a handmade sign, “Lottery is not the solution 4 Education!”

A stalwart parent volunteer in the TJ community, Yuyan Zhou stood before the crowd — many of them longtime friends from her eight years as a TJ mother to two TJ graduates — and, to cheers, she told her story of having stood in Tiananmen Square in 1989 to advocate for democracy. “A lot of people say: why are you still in this? Because I care. I have invested eight years in TJ as a volunteer, and I have witnessed countless times and events where this whole community comes together supporting each other, parents teachers students, all work hard together to make this a better community.”

“There are so many heartwarming stories,” she said, holding a sign in her hand, “The TJ Test is Race Blind,” and her words for the TJ community, she said, are “compassion, love, support and pursuit for excellence.” She refused the narratives that angry activist alumni and county and state education officials have put forward to push their agenda to remove the merit-based test at TJ, calling the school many smears from a “miserable place” to “racist,” the Virginia Education Secretary Atif Qarni even comparing test preparation to taking illegal sports enhancement drugs.

“This is not a place where they should mess….with our values,” Zhou argued.

“Merit!” someone shouted, in response, to cheers.

Zhou lived through the Cultural Revolution in China, when education achievement and intellect were punished. “We know how devastating that effect is,” she said. “As many immigrants who came to this country, I came here for freedoms….I came here for the dreams of America. Here we are and we are all fighting for the same dreams. This reputation did not come overnight.”

One man waved his sign, “Don’t implement a half-baked idea on a fully-baked school.”

“Hard work!” a man responded in the crowd.

In the crowd were signs in native languages of the attendees: Bengali, Spanish, Cantonese, Hindi and, for the children who are first generation to America, English.

Their wit and messages reflected the intellect of this crowd.

“Merit Exam = Dr. King’s Dream,” read one sign, in a reference to the iconic “I have a dream” speech by civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King to judge people not by the “color of their skin” but the “content of their character.”

Now, Zhou, an empty nester, stood in front of her children’s alma mater, demanding that the Commonwealth of Virginia and Fairfax County Public Schools end their ill-conceived campaign to socially engineer racial demographics at the school. Like all of the community members there, Zhou said, she supports increasing the numbers of Black and Hispanic students at the school but her solution — a clear one to anyone thinking about the problem — is to uplift, mentor and educate those students so they can meet the academic rigor that is admissions to TJ, not remove the academic.

“Moral courage is the only solution for this madness! Stand up for your rights. Stand up for your values and fight for the future of our students.”

Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and the mother of a student at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.