For years, two administrators at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) have been withholding notifications of National Merit awards from the school’s families, most of them Asian, thus denying students the right to use those awards to boost their college-admission prospects and earn scholarships. This episode has emerged amid the school district’s new strategy of “equal outcomes for every student, without exception.” School administrators, for instance, have implemented an “equitable grading” policy that eliminates zeros, gives students a grade of 50 percent just for showing up, and assigns a cryptic code of “NTI” for assignments not turned in. It’s a race to the bottom.
An intrepid Thomas Jefferson parent, Shawna Yashar, a lawyer, uncovered the withholding of National Merit awards. Since starting as a freshman at the school in September 2019, her son, who is part Arab American, studied statistical analysis, literature reviews, and college-level science late into the night. This workload was necessary to keep him up to speed with the advanced studies at TJ, which U.S. News & World Report ranks as America’s top school.
Last fall, along with about 1.5 million U.S. high school juniors, the Yashar teen took the PSAT, which determines whether a student qualifies as a prestigious National Merit scholar. When it came time to submit his college applications this fall, he didn’t have a National Merit honor to report—but it wasn’t because he hadn’t earned the award. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation, a nonprofit based in Evanston, Illinois, had recognized him as a Commended Student in the top 3 percent nationwide—one of about 50,000 students earning that distinction. Principals usually celebrate National Merit scholars with special breakfasts, award ceremonies, YouTube videos, press releases, and social media announcements.
But not at TJ. School officials had decided to withhold announcement of the award. Indeed, it turns out that the principal, Ann Bonitatibus, and the director of student services, Brandon Kosatka, have been withholding this information from families and the public for years, affecting the lives of at least 1,200 students over the principal’s tenure of five years. Recognition by National Merit opens the door to millions of dollars in college scholarships and 800 Special Scholarships from corporate sponsors.
I learned—two years after the fact—that National Merit had recognized my son, a graduate of TJ’s Class of 2021, as a Commended Student in a September 10, 2020, letter that National Merit sent to Bonitatibus. But the principal, who lobbied that fall to nix the school’s merit-based admission test to increase “diversity,” never told us about it. Parents from earlier years told me that she also didn’t tell them about any Commended Student awards. One former student said he learned he had won the award through a random email from the school to a school-district email account that students rarely check; the principal neither told his parents nor made a public announcement.
On September 16 of this year, National Merit sent a letter to Bonitatibus listing 240 students recognized as Commended Students or Semi-Finalists. The letter included these words in bold type: “Please present the letters of commendation as soon as possible since it is the students’ only notification.”
National Merit hadn’t included enough stamps on the package, but nevertheless it got to Bonitatibus by mid-October—before the October 31 deadline for early acceptance to select colleges. In an email, Bonitatibus told Yashar that she had signed the certificates “within 48 hours.” But homeroom teachers didn’t distribute the awards until Monday, November 14, after the early-application deadlines had passed. Teachers dropped the certificates unceremoniously on students’ desks.
“Keeping these certificates from students is theft by the state,” says Yashar. Bonitatibus didn’t notify parents or the public. What’s more, it could be a civil rights violation, says local parent advocate Debra Tisler, with most TJ students in a protected class of “gifted” students, most of them racial minorities, many with disabilities, and most coming from immigrant families whose parents speak English as a second language. “It’s just cruel,” says Tisler.
In a call with Yashar, Kosatka admitted that the decision to withhold the information from parents and inform the students in a low-key way was intentional. “We want to recognize students for who they are as individuals, not focus on their achievements,” he told her, claiming that he and the principal didn’t want to “hurt” the feelings of students who didn’t get the award. A National Merit spokeswoman said that the organization’s officials “leave this honor exclusively to the high school officials” to announce. Kosatka and Bonitatibus didn’t respond to requests for comment. In a rare admission, Fabio Zuluaga, an assistant superintendent at Fairfax County Public Schools, told me that the school system has erred not telling students, the public, and families about awards: “It was a mistake to be honest.” Zuluaga said it also isn’t enough just to hand over a certificate. “We have to do something special,” he said. “A commendation sends a very strong message to the kid, right? Your work is meaningful. If you work hard in life, there are good benefits from that.”
On Monday, December 12, after getting caught, Kosatka sent an email to the parents of Commended Students, notifying them of the “important recognition” and saying, “We are deeply sorry” for not sharing the news earlier. He claimed school officials would contact college admissions offices to correct the record.
Bonitatibus still hasn’t publicly recognized the students or told parents from earlier years that their students won the awards. And she hasn’t yet delivered the missing certificates. The war on merit is a war on our kids.
Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images