Area Principals Admit to Withholding National Merit Awards From Students

by Asra Q. Nomani

While Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Michelle Reid claims the principal at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST) withheld National Merit awards from students in a “one-time human error,” parents at two local high schools got a Friday and Saturday night surprise.

The revelations are emerging after school district principals scrambled to a meeting Wednesday afternoon with the superintendent, after Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares announced a civil rights investigation into the controversy. Just as at TJHSST, the new revelations appear to impact many Asian-American students – one focus of the investigation.

In an email, obtained by the Fairfax County Times, Langley High School Principal Kim Greer pressed send on a mea culpa at 9:29:30 p.m. on Friday night, confusing, agitating, and angering parents and students already on edge during the tumultuous college admissions season.

Greer told parents that she was “delighted” to let them know that “your student was designated a Commended Student by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.” She then immediately followed up by saying, “I must apologize that certificates were not distributed to these Langley High School students in the usual way this past fall.”

Tonight, another email shared with the Fairfax County Times went out to parents at 8:39 p.m. This time, Tony DiBari, the “Proud Principal” at Westfield High School in Chantilly, told parents that “it has come to light that Westfield High School students designated as Commended Students this past fall were also not notified by the school.”

As news spread in the community about the new revelations, parents are livid, particularly in light of a new contract that Fairfax County Public Schools signed this fall with a sole-source contractor who preaches an “equity” strategy of “equal outcomes for every student,” urging school district officials to “have the courage and the willingness to be purposefully unequal when it comes to opportunities and access.”

“The TJ rot spreads….” one local parent said in an email. In McLean, down Georgetown Pike from CIA headquarters, Langley is a school, like TJHSST, with many high-achieving students.

“I am deeply sorry for this mistake,” wrote Greer. In the National Merit competition, about 1.5 million students take the PSAT/NMSQT test, and about 50,000 students are recognized as being among the top 3 percent of students, awarding them honors akin to gold, silver, and bronze medals. Every September, National Merit recognizes about 16,000 students as Semifinalists and 34,000 as Commended Students. Ultimately about 15,000 of the Semifinalists go on to be recognized as National Merit Finalists.

National coverage of the TJ story got the attention of Lt. Governor Winsome Earle-Sears and Governor Glenn Youngkin. Youngkin sent a letter on Jan. 3 to Miyares asking him to conduct an investigation into the issue. The next day, on Jan. 4, the attorney general held a press conference at the Korean Community Center in Annandale, announcing he had opened two civil rights investigations, one into the withheld National Merit awards notifications and another into admissions changes to the school. With about 70 percent of students at TJHSST Asian-American, Miyares raised the specter of anti-Asian discrimination in both policies.

In recent years, most of the students awarded Semifinalist and Commended Students at TJHSST, Langley High School and Westfield High School have been Asian-American. In his press conference, Miyares said, “Equity without excellence is emptiness.”

A Langley father, who spoke on condition of anonymity in fear of retaliation from the school district, said Virginia Tech recently rejected his son’s application for early admission and the family was shocked to open the principal’s email – in the middle of the night – with the news that their son was a Commended Student.

“School district officials are deliberately sabotaging our kids’ lives in the name of ‘equity,’” the father said. “It’s cruel, if not evil. Think about the despondency that they are creating.”

On Saturday, Langley parents had already begun filing complaints with Miyares’ office. The Langley father said he wants to see the Langley principal fired for cause for undermining students.

“The apology is empty,” he said. “We are feeling a cascade of emotions. We trusted the school system with our son’s life, and they betrayed our trust.”

The principals at Langley and Westfield used nearly identical language that school staff “will be contacting colleges” where students had applied. The Langley principal added: “Our intention is to ensure college admissions departments know that your student was the recipient of this important award.”

This, however, overlooks the fact that college admissions officers have already made life-changing decisions – including rejections – based on incomplete information from students, missing this important award. According to a survey of opportunities available, the National Merit Commended Student recognition opens the door to millions of dollars in college scholarships, including a four-year scholarship at Liberty University, and 800 Special Scholarships from corporate sponsors. The deadlines for many of those scholarships have already passed.

In carbon-copy language, both principals wrote, “We understand and value the hard work and dedication of each and every student, and the families and staff who support them. Please be assured that we remain resolutely committed to supporting every student in reaching their unique and fullest potential.”

However, for parents in the school district these examples of merit withheld from students raise serious concerns, particularly amid news that the FCPS superintendent 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 equity imperative is to give each student what they need to meet equal outcomes. The goal is not equitable outcomes,” Fagbayi said early last year, promoting an identical strategy at a meeting with officials in Princeton Public Schools. A video recording of the April 26, 2022, meeting is posted on YouTube.

“The goal is equal outcomes,” Fagbayi explained. “And what we need to be equitable about is the access. In a very real sense, many districts struggle with this. To have true equity, you have to be purposefully unequal when it comes to resources. I want to say that again because most districts struggle with that. To have an equity-centered organization, we have to have the courage and the willingness to be purposefully unequal when it comes to opportunities and access.”

This is an excerpt of an article originally published in the Fairfax County Times. Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter who lives in Fairfax County.