With four more school principals confessing they withheld National Merit awards from students, bringing the total to seven schools so far, the Fairfax County Parents Association sent the school district, state and local leaders a scathing letter, calling them out for saying that the awards “don’t matter.”
“You should hang your heads in shame,” the parents’ group, a nonpartisan volunteer grassroots organization, wrote in a letter published late Saturday morning.
In recent days, Jennifer Adeli, the Dranesville District representative of the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, called the National Merit Commended Student award winners “4th place finishers.” Children in the Dranesville District have been impacted by the withholding of the awards. (She later deleted the tweet.)
The Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board is the local agency that provides services for people in Fairfax County and the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church who have mental illness, substance use disorders, and/or intellectual or developmental disabilities. The administrative board of which Adeli is part of oversees the establishment and operation of these local services.
Also earlier this week, in a tweet, Virginia Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Mt. Vernon), an attorney and a longtime critic of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), published a tweet, calling an investigation into the issue by Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, “fake.” Virginia House Minority Leader Don Scott (D-Portsmouth) alleged Miyares had created a “fake controversy that in no way impacts educational outcomes in schools.”
Taking a cue from these leaders, local activists disparaged parents and children raising concern with the withholding of the awards, saying they were chasing a “fake news story” with “Faux outrage” and an “absurd accusation of bias” by Fairfax County Public Schools.
In its letter, the parents’ group asked state and local leaders, “How dare you tell students that their hard work doesn't matter? How dare you pretend that students who manage to be in the top 3% academically among seniors nationwide have not achieved an accomplishment of which they should be enormously proud? How dare you tell these students – most of whom do not come from wealth – that it doesn't matter whether they are able to note this achievement on college applications, or applications for academic scholarships that could help pay for college?”
Most of the country has been outraged after the story broke on Dec. 21, documenting that Ann Bonitatibus, the school principal at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), didn’t tell students they had earned important National Merit Commended Student awards until weeks after deadlines had passed for early admissions and scholarships, costing students opportunities. Commended Students are among the top 3 percent of 1.5 million students who take the PSAT/NMSQT test in their junior years, and the honor opens the door to admissions, scholarships and other opportunities.
However, in the three weeks since the controversy has roiled the community, a band of politicians and activists in Virginia have dismissed the scandal.
Earlier this week, on Jan. 9, after Langley High School and Westfield High School principals admitted withholding the awards, Adeli, wrote on Twitter, “Ok catching up ITS NOT EVEN THE NMS [National Merit Scholarship] AWARD ITS FOR COMMENDED STUDENTS- like 4th place finishers?! The only real implication is scholarship to gross liberty university w [with] 99% acceptance rate and 30% grad rate? FFS [For F*#ks Sake] what a desperate cry for attention.”
Adeli is featured on the Fairfax County Democratic Committee website. In another tweet on Jan. 9, she also claimed that “there are zero real world implications to a delayed distribution, certainly nothing that should garner this attention.”
By Friday night, as four more principals announced withholding the award, including at his children’s high school, Surovell doubled-down and called the investigation “absurd” in a tweet.
“Student success should be celebrated, not hidden. The fact that Fairfax County Public Schools purposefully withheld commendations that could alter the trajectory of students’ futures is unconscionable,” said Christy Hudson, a local mother and board member of the Fairfax County Parents Association. “Parents assume principals and school administrators have their children’s best interests at heart, and this clearly proves otherwise. What the school district has done is shameful.”
According to an analysis done by the Fairfax County Times, the Commended Student award gives students an automatic four-year scholarship at Liberty University in Lynchburg, worth about $100,000 today. It also qualifies students for 800 Special Scholarships managed by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. Most National Merit Commended Students have just narrowly missed – sometimes just by one question – becoming National Merit Semifinalists, which qualify students for more scholarships. So, knowing they have achieved the honor of being Commended Students not only opens the door to financial benefits but it’s a clear signal to admissions counselors and employers that these students are among the most academically advanced students in the nation. What’s more, families can leverage financial aid packages at one university to negotiate better packages at other schools.
“The students earned these recognitions through hard work. They deserve to be notified and deserve the chance to decide whether to include this recognition on their college and scholarship applications,” the Fairfax County Parents Association said in its letter. “Our elected officials and the school system bureaucracy should never withhold or delay the recognition.”
Early on, Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Michelle Reid called the withholding of awards as a “one-time” problem that was the result of “human error.” It launched a local #SaveMerit campaign, and the Fairfax County Parents Association didn’t buy Reid’s response.
“This is not one school making a ‘one-time mistake’ by not notifying or delaying notification,” the group said in its letter. “This is a pattern that speaks to a school system focused on creating an illusion of equity by either punishing students who worked hard to achieve high academic performance and recognition, or one that has so little regard for academic achievement that it cannot be bothered to prioritize it. As schools race to issue almost-identical press releases clearly coordinated by FCPS central administration, families must wonder if that coordination also speaks to an effort to downplay, or ignore, the achievements in the first place to push high-achieving students to the side in the pursuit of the equal outcomes ‘equity’ narrative.”
As reported, the school district and local agencies have spent at least $513,500 on two controversial contracts with proponents of policies that parents groups and community members allege lead to the kind of discrimination alleged in the withholding of the National Merit awards. Since August 2020, Fairfax County Public Schools, the Reston Community Center and the Fairfax County Public Library have spent $58,500 for three hours and 40 minutes of talks, most of them virtual, with author Ibram X. Kendi, who has written, “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.”
Then, this fall, the school superintendent, Reid, signed a contract to pay a friend and consultant, Mutiu Fagabayi, founder of Performance Fact Inc., a firm based in California, $455,000 to chart the school district’s strategy. Fagabayi has advised school districts they must be “purposefully unequal” to achieve “equal outcomes for every student, without exception.” Reid had hired Fagabayi at her previous school district in Washington state.
“We applaud the Virginia state attorney general and executive branch for investigating this matter, and we anticipate being slack-jawed at all of the ways in which FCPS attempts to ‘spin’ its way out of having been caught proactively working against its own students,” the Fairfax County Parents Association noted.
In a warning to local parents, the group said, “Parents, this situation is a symptom of a greater disease in FCPS. The school system has lost its way, putting a commitment to academic excellence last on its priorities list and even working against academics and merit where it means hard-working students could achieve unequal outcomes.”
The parents’ group set its eyes on school board elections later this year, which will decide all 12 seats on the board, saying, “If you want change in this school system, please join us in demanding that FCPS recommit itself to academic excellence over equal outcomes. Ultimately, we must demand change at the ballot box in November 2023 when all school board seats will be up for election to serve the next four-year term.”