In late November, local mother Shawna Yashar, an attorney, saw a certificate that her son, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ), had hastily tucked into his backpack.
To Yashar’s surprise, the certificate was a special honor from the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, based in Evanston, Ill., recognizing her son as a Commended Student in the top 3 percent of about 1.5 million high school seniors in the nation — or one of about 50,000 students earning that distinction. Upon learning about the awards in mid-September, principals usually quickly announce National Merit Commended Students and Semifinalists with special breakfasts, award ceremonies, YouTube videos, press releases, and social media announcements.
However, at TJ, which U.S. News & World Report ranks as America’s top school, the principal had only announced the Semifinalists, having teachers unceremoniously drop the Commended Student certificate on student desks the morning of Monday, Nov. 14, too late to include the honor in students’ early applications for college, due two weeks earlier. The National Merit Commended Student recognition opens the door to millions of dollars in college scholarships and 800 Special Scholarships from corporate sponsors.
“Keeping these certificates from students is theft by the state,” says Yashar.
What Yashar uncovered after days of digging is that the TJ principal, Ann Bonitatibus, and the director of student services, Brandon Kosatka, have been quietly hiding National Merit Commended Student awards from students, parents and the public. As TJ parents compare notes, they say this practice has been occurring for as long as five years, since the principal’s arrival at TJ in 2017. (In the course of reporting, I just discovered – two years later – that National Merit recognized my son, a Class of 2021 TJ graduate, as a Commended Student in September 2020, but the principal withheld that information from families, denying students scholarships and boosts to admissions.)
Making matters worse, Fairfax Times has learned that Bonitatibus withheld the awards as school district officials signed a contract of about nine months, paying a controversial contractor, Mutiu Fagbayi, and his company Performance Fact Inc., based in Oakland, Calif., $455,000 for “equity” training that includes a controversial “Equity-centered Strategic Plan” with this goal: “equal outcomes for every student, without exception.”
The slide presentation, similar to other slide decks shared with other school districts, includes a title with a sloppy error, “A Peek at Student Achievement in MCSD,” with a reference to another school district. The school district’s contract with the company also incorrectly references “Performance Matters, Inc.” as the vendor.
Fairfax Times has also learned that National Merit had notified Bonitatibus about this year’s awards eight months ago in April 2022 when National Merit sent her – and principals nationwide – a list of students that would be recognized as Commended Students and Semi-Finalists in the fall.
Then, on Sept. 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.”
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.
As news has spread of the discovery in parent groups and education circles, there is a growing call for Fairfax County Public Schools to terminate the jobs of the two administrators with cause, for doing irreparable harm to students, their scholarship and college opportunities and futures.
This week, Northern Virginia parent groups, including the Chinese American Parents of Northern Virginia, Hispanics for Stem, Coalition for TJ and Army of Parents, sent a letter to local and state officials, including Fairfax County’s 12 school board members, Virginia Education Secretary Aimee Guidera, Virginia Superintendent Jillian Balow and Fairfax County Superintendent Michelle Reid.
The letter calls for the school board to terminate the jobs of the two administrators investigation, and it asks the Virginia Department of Education to move authority over TJ from the Fairfax County school board to a regional board, as required by state regulations, and institute policies that require school officials to tell parents and students about awards and other academic achievements. Finally, the parents are asking Miyares to investigate the mishandling of the awards by TJ officials.
In a rare admission, Fabio Zuluaga, an assistant superintendent at Fairfax County Public Schools, said that the school system erred not telling students, the public and families about the awards. “It was a mistake to be honest,” he said.
On Monday, December 12, after getting caught, Kosatka sent an email to the TJ parents of Commended Students, saying, “We are deeply sorry” for not sharing the news earlier. However, two weeks later, the principal and the school district’s 12 board members, superintendent and media relations officers have not responded to repeated requests for comment.