Sarah Castillo, 15, grew up never considering the possibility of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Then two years ago, Thomas Jefferson, known as TJ and frequently ranked the best public high school in America, radically altered its admissions process, eliminating a much-feared test and a $100 application fee, in the hope of admitting more students of color and low-income students.
The changes at the magnet school in Northern Virginia sent parents and alumni into a frenzy. Some were thrilled that the first class admitted under the new system boasted more Black and Hispanic students, at 7 percent and 11 percent, than any other in recent memory. But others lamented a 20 percent decrease in Asian American representation, and a group of disgruntled parents eventually filed a lawsuit alleging the admissions system is racially discriminatory. That suit, which recently drew the attention of the Supreme Court, is ongoing.
But, as the adults went to battle in courtrooms, students such as Sarah Castillo were reconsidering their options. Hundreds of students who had neither thought of applying to TJ, nor felt they had a chance of acceptance under the old admissions system, now took the plunge, and some of them, including Sarah, got in.
These students spent the past year finding their way inside the school, adjusting to its notoriously heavy workload and trying to make good grades alongside good friends. Constantly sounding in the background, even for those who tried to ignore it, were the voices of adults, and sometimes fellow students, who insisted the admissions process that accepted them was illegitimate, that they did not belong at TJ.
The Washington Post followed four TJ freshmen — Sarah Castillo, Ershad Sulaiman, Kaiwan Bilal and Julie Marco — through a difficult, unusual and absorbing academic year. Here, in their own words, is what it was like.
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