National Merit - 6

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 breakfastsaward ceremoniesYouTube videospress 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.

(17) comments

Malcolm Vex

I read this article a few times. The author, Asra Nomani, is a hack. I'd like to further explore her insinuation that the actions of the administrators were "low-key intentional." This sounds like it was written by a student for the school paper. The statement that administrators didn't want to "hurt" students' feelings is not backed up with the quote she gave regarding finding more to recognize students for than just their grades. There was a clear agenda by the author. It sounds like her child was one of the students that didn't receive a parade or the celebration breakfast she stated some other schools give with the announcements.

jocelynbey1

It's sad that folks in this day and age who still support racism - even against our children - as well as discrimination based upon what you do or dont do with that thing between your legs - don't want to hear the truth. Which is exactly what this article presents. Their is a clear agenda by the folks attacking the reporter precisely because they can't defend the outrageous actions they support.

Buddysmama

I work with teen age foster kids. I emphasize that by going the “extra mile” and applying themselves, they may be able to get scholarships to help them go to the college/university after they age out of the foster care system. What this Principal and Student Services Director did is reprehensible. Not only should they be fired, they should lose any Educational licenses (teachers, administrators or other) and should be brought up on “Premeditated Theft of Educational Grants/Scholarships” and face some serious time in a State Prison. Teenagers need to know they have your support for doing well, these administrators did the total opposite. The Fairfax Public School System needs to cancel the “Equity Program” ASAP.

JustAnotherTwit

Ruh-roh. You don't want to alienate the best and brightest. Keep them happy. They WILL destroy you. Bad idea to make enemies of these kids. Trust me. The WILL rule the day.

reason

The discrimination of intelligent, hard working students by the school administrators is a prime example of pathology of affirmative actions. People are not and never were equal with respect to intelligence and qualities of character, and the best cannot be punished for their high achievements. The US is failing on all fronts now, because it chose a path of rewarding mediocrity.

Ssamnick

Actually, we don’t have the specific information to know which students feelings they were trying to avoid hurting. Your assumption that this is some political left motivated action may be mistaken. Typically, the whole “hurt feelings” rhetoric comes from the right who use that expression to justify not teaching children true American history, even the basics. Since we don’t have the demographics on which students these administrators were worried about, we should not jump to conclusions about their motivations. Yes, they spent money on some equity firm, but that firm’s goal of of equal outcomes is incorrect. That is absolutely not what equity means. Equity is about trying to give each student a relatively equal opportunity to succeed, not the outcome. Equity is not about hurt feelings but about giving every students a chance to at least start with similar opportunities and resources. What’s they do with them is up to each student. Some will achieve certain goals, some will not. As one other commenter noted, we shouldn’t be punishing the achievers to spare the feelings of the other students. Teachers should use the fact that this is how life is and that it’s not a failure, but should be used to galvanize students to do better if they want to be seen as high achieving. Keeping the information from parents, thereby affecting scholarship opportunities is simply wrong.

Captain America

Typical WOKE Bull-Schiff from the Lunatic Left !

Both of these miscreants should have their PAY withheld until the give a PUBLIC apology

Ssamnick

Typical over reaction from a lunatic right wingnut who thinks punishment is the only solution to every conceivable situation that they see as offensive. That said, yes, the situation needs correcting. But think whose feelings were allegedly going to be hurt. That’s usually the expression of concern for white students having to learn about the history of slavery in America, before and after the Revolutionary War. So, maybe it’s more to protect the feelings of mostly white students. Or maybe this wasn’t a political issue at all and just a poorly thought out decision that didn’t take into account the consequences and the two individuals had simply justifying their actions after the fact.

Of course none of this occurs to some people as they see the world in only black and white and not in all the shades in between that reality shows us every day.

RJones

Mostly white students? No it's mostly Asian students.

AnnandaleAce

As both a teacher and parent, the actions of these administrators are deeply offensive to me. Students achievements ARE a huge part of their characters. Achievements should be acknowledged and celebrated. In addition, these students were potentially robbed of scholarships and admissions to their desired colleges and universities. These administrators are an embarrassment. I’m glad I don’t teach in Fairfax County and very glad my adult children graduated in the early 2000s when competent educators were in charge. While I object to the unprofessional and personal tone of the author, the facts speak for themselves. These administrators are incompetent and should be terminated.

Starrgazze

Either this rag is completely unaware of what's going on for years now, as in "this writer is a certified liar obsessed with self promotion," or this "news" site is willingly participating in the spread of lies that could incite violence against two public servants. At TJ, students are aware of awards. When time comes to find out any score on anything, that is all students talk about and parents are very aware of it too. So, this "lawyer," in the article appears to be a little clueless. Why is it the school's fault?

Johnie2000

1st Why's there a problem with not hurting someone's feelings? I thought fairfax county has a policy of not hurting people's feelings. If this is the case, what's the problem?

2nd Why should faifax County have to pay a lawsuit? The actual criminal should be responsible for the kids' scholarship.

ThinkingOutloud

In regards to question 1, you’re stretching it too far out of context. FCPS cant be held responsible for people’s feelings being hurt due to individual accomplishments.

AnnandaleAce

Respectfully, your premise is unsound. As a teacher I can tell you that someone’s feelings are always hurt. The student who does not achieve may feel hurt by the achiever’s accomplishments, but the student who achieves may also be hurt when their achievements are not recognized. Why should the student who achieves be ignored? Children should be taught by both parents and teachers to value themselves and find self-esteem from within. This is far preferable than ignoring or diminishing those who find success in certain areas. That’s a life lesson.

Cheryl Binkley

Ms. Nomani’s story is a total hoax. All students who take the PSAT and their parents have complete access to their records on their personal College Boards dashboard. It is impossible for FCPS to deprive anyone of their scores or awards.

Helpfcps

Why does a huge scholarship like NMSQT use stamps to inform a school about their students’ commended or finalist status? The students put their emails on their PSAT forms so couldn’t the college board/NMSQT at least email them a heads up as to their status? They certainly have no issue emailing students and parents regularly to spend their money and register for tests, test prep and the like.

AmyGregory

True! But the big question here is why a school that required testing for admission in order to have top ranked students suddenly decided to deny students the fruit of their hard work. Did denying the kids who earned scholarships the ability to get those scholarships help the kids who did not in any way? No. Communism is a failed form of government for exactly this reason: if there are no rewards for hard work, there is no motivation to work hard. You don’t create equity by dragging people down. You offer the same opportunities and recognize those who use those opportunities to be successful. I am sorry for the kids whose parents can’t afford to help them at home, either because they are working two jobs or are not educated themselves. But it is hardly productive for society as a whole to pretend that everyone achieves equally. Not everyone can grow up to be president…or a doctor, or lawyer. Think about how many 20 year olds are still living at home - unmotivated and feeling they are not good at anything. If you don’t recognize effort and achievement - whatever the race, or income level, or gender - you are imposing equity in a way that crushes the hard workers. Kids need to know they are doing well! Plus, this is FRAUD. I hope the parents sue over the lost opportunities.

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