A divided School Board on Tuesday approved a new plan designed by administrators to increase the diversity of the students selected to participate in the county’s top STEM programs.
The division came under fire last year, when a complaint by the Loudoun NAACP alleging that only very few Black and Hispanic students were being selected for the Academy of Science and Academy of Engineering programs, sparked a still-continuing investigation by the Virginia Attorney General’s Office.
Superintendent Eric Williams and his staff, after consulting with an attorney specializing in segregation and discrimination issues, in June proposed changing the admission requirements and procedures to remove barriers that could hamper minority students and students from low-income families from gaining admission. This week, they also outlined a proposal to ensure students from all middle schools are more equitably represented in the programs. [See full staff presentation]
For the 2020-21 school year, the percentage of Black students applying to participate in the Academy of Science and the Academy of Engineering and Technology was proportional to the percentage of Black students overall in the school system. However, fewer than 10 Black students were selected for admission to either program.
The admission figures show that Asian students, who make up 23 percent of Loudoun’s enrollment, represent the largest portion of the Academies applicant pool—at least 50 percent. At the Academy of Science this fall, 103 students will be Asian, 19 will be white and the number of Black students will be under 10. No Hispanic students were admitted among the 51 who applied. At AET, 82 students will be Asian, 51 white and fewer than 10 Black and Hispanic.
Among the changes that will go into effect this year are reducing the number of applicant assessment tests from four to two, creating a racially and ethnically diverse selection committee, and taking steps to achieve a better geographical balance in the student selections.
During Tuesday’s meeting, more than 60 parents and students joined the School Board’s call-in public comment session to oppose the changes. They characterized the plan as hastily and poorly conceived, and one that would reduce the caliber of the programs by admitting lower performing students.
Williams said the selection system would continue to be merit-based, but would provide opportunities for more, equally qualified students to compete for the coveted slots while also resulting in more diverse classes.
The package of changes was initially opposed by a five-member School Board majority, which instead backed a proposal to reassemble an ad-hoc committee to provide oversight of the Academies programs and to more thoroughly study options to improve admissions procedures. A previous committee, established to guide the design and opening of the new campus, was dissolved by the prior School Board.
“Increasing the diversity at AOS and AET is a laudable goal and I agree that changes may be needed and probably will be needed to the admissions process,” Ian Serotkin (Blue Ridge) said. “However, I am deeply concerned that we are rushing these proposed changes without having sufficient data about the impact and consequences, either intended or unintended.”
Jeffrey Morse (Dulles) agreed that more study was needed, but said that extra work wouldn’t get in the way of improving diversity.
“Loudoun County is making huge strides to provide racial and ethnic equality across all our programs,” he said.
Other members said urgent action was needed.
Beth Barts (Leesburg) said students in her district are underrepresented in the programs.
“We have to take steps now. We have to make equal opportunity for all students in Loudoun County,” she said. “I don’t believe that leveling the playing field is going to tarnish the image of the Academies. … I find that offensive and I think it is time to stop that.”
“I think it is time for us to make some changes and not just talk about it,” Barts said.
Serotkin’s motion to have a new committee study the options initially passed on a 5-4 vote. However, after a recess in the meeting, Denise Corbo (At Large) called for a reconsideration and Williams’ plan was approved on a 5-2-2 vote, with John Beatty (Catoctin) and Jeffrey Morse (Dulles) opposed and Serotkin and Harris Mahedavi (Broad Run) abstaining.
A separate motion to create a new ad-hoc committee was approved unanimously.