by Asra Q. Nomani

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.

Asra Nomani is a senior contributor at The Federalist and a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Network. This column has been republished with permission from City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

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37 responses to “The War on Merit Takes a Bizarre Turn”

  1. Ronnie Chappell Avatar
    Ronnie Chappell

    The administrators should be on the street, looking for work, tomorrow morning.

  2. Merit-based acknowledgement and position acquisition is overrated….. not using it for placing people in positions has worked great for the Biden administration – the first “check this box and you’re in White House”

  3. Absolutely despicable.

    Bonitatibus and Kosatkal deserve to be fired on Christmas day.

    1. Matt Adams Avatar

      Christmas Eve with forfeit of the last year’s pay to the individuals they hosed over.

    2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      Don’t forget to fire the person that hired these two.

  4. Absolutely despicable.

    Bonitatibus and Kosatkal deserve to be fired on Christmas day.

  5. Rossiferous Avatar

    That idjit principal should be fired. By her logic Nobel Prize winners or Medal of Honor winners shouldn’t be recognized. And a school system that fosters such crap needs to be overhauled.

  6. Bubba1855 Avatar

    Duh…does this really surprise anyone? ‘something is rotten in Denmark’.

  7. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

    So, when does FCPS eliminate merit for interscholastic sports? The only thing to do is sue, sue, sue. Section 1983 of the federal Civil Rights Act is a proper tool.

    Keep in mind that, a few years ago, when FCPS was approximately 200 teachers short one school year, administrators were requested to return to the classroom for one year. They were promised they could keep their current compensation if higher and given the right to return to their old position the next school year. Guess how many of these children-first administrators volunteered? Zero.

    Cut administrative jobs and freeze the compensation for those that remain. Give the money to those who actually teach.

  8. James C. Sherlock Avatar
    James C. Sherlock

    The most damning thing about this is that it surprises no one.

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      And it will never be reported by WaPo.

      1. Matt Adams Avatar

        Ian and his best buddy M.Purdy will never say a word.

  9. James C. Sherlock Avatar
    James C. Sherlock

    The damages awarded by a court to this enormous class should be stratospheric.

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    Having agreed that the “hiding” of academic merit is fundamentally wrong – no matter the reason or justification – I will also point out that only 2% of low income kids get into TJ and that INCLCUDES the Asians.

    We say ” that’s too bad, we need to fix that …some day… when we can agree how “….

    so , tough luck kids… we have no help for you to achieve your potential if you are poor.

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      Only 2% of high income kids get in as well. Silly comment, Larry. (And some of us got National Merit recognition back in the dark ages.) Your efforts to put lipstick on this pig are futile.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Uh…. population size…

        Are the BGTQ+ communities properly represented?

        Wait, No el.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          interesting how the folks worried about “merit” don’t seem to give a rats behind about how come so few low income end up getting admitted, much less anything to do about it.

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Clearly Larry, they’re low income for a reason. Breeding counts, you know.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            even for low income Asians?

          3. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            I suppose.

  11. Deckplates Avatar

    In the late 90’s, our two children graduated from TJ. The long day of testing was tough. At that time, it was 400 per year with 50 as “back up.” We believed that the top students were being accepted and felt lucky that ours were among those. For entry, to TJ, the years of hard work & study paid off.

    The PhD’s & MS degrees instructing our children in higher math, Chemistry, special science programs and CPU programs, etc. were excellent. The academics were unparalleled. We both had attended college while holding down full-time jobs. NO ONE paid for our college degrees, and we wanted better for our children. So, TJ, was that dream realized.

    Today, the acceptance into TJ, is based on allocated numbers of people from different races, gender and “other” criteria. NONE of the details are obviated to the parents who work so hard with their children to excel. In actuality it “smacks” around those who work hard in early years only to be told that they are not of the right race & gender. Unfortunately, the “other” criteria are opaque to those who seek it.

    Today, those highly accomplished children NOT accepted into TJ will always think that they were treated unfairly due to their race or sex or some undefined “other” criteria. Moreover, those who are accepted to TJ, due to race or gender or “other” criteria, rather than purely by merit will always feel less worthy. Who the heck cares about what race or gender is the highest in acceptance? Why not just take in the best students?

    Fairfax has destroyed TJ.

  12. James Kiser Avatar
    James Kiser

    When the Boomer generation dies the end of the country will be rapid.

  13. Andy Stone Avatar

    The administrators should be fired!

  14. 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.

    So…. every child gets a trophy, or no child gets a trophy.

    This is pathetic.

    1. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

      Applying that logic, military deserters should be given the Medal of Honor or at least a Silver Star.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Well perhaps, that it takes more than just “warriors” for the military to perform it’s mission.

        We need more than just math/science whizzes to make the world go round.

        1. Matt Hurt Avatar

          That is true. Maybe the problem is that they have changed the mission of the school, but have neglected to change the name of the school to reflect the mission. “Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology” makes me think that math and science would be highly valued.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            Oh I seriously agree but is that the ONLY area of higher achievement we should be emphasizing and motivating?

            When you look at 100 or 1000 very successful people what percent of them are/were math/science whizzes?

            Yes, I agree with you , I do not agree with how they are changing the school but at the same time, they’ve created something that is for only some kids and they’ve created nothing for kids who excel in other areas besides math/science.

            Some kids actually grow up to be businessmen and women, entrepreneurs, experts in fields like paleontology, even engineers , systems analysts, human resource specialists who did not really excel in math and science.

            We need to have paths to success beyond just that one IMO.

  15. LarrytheG Avatar

    I can understand the idea that there is more to an individual and their potential that just academic merit but withholding scores is way wrong in my view. I don’t think it’s much better than they did “low-key”.

    The basic premise of TJ may not be right, i.e. to make everything about “academic merit” but mostly in math and science as opposed to other also important disciplines.

    I just point out how many very successful folks there are, including some in this blog that were not necessarily exemplary in math/science.

    But TJ was apparently conceived on that singular/narrow basis and now that premise
    in questioned.

    But it’s not a critter that can be changed easily and doing it this way is counterproductive in that it not only will achieve it’s new direction but the idea that science/math academic merit are to be dismissed as achievement is ignorant in and of itself.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      It is the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Larry. Just reminding.

    2. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

      Larry, TJ is about math and science. FCPS has considered proposals to establish another Governor’s School that would focus on other subjects. But so far, nothing has come of that. So, keeping the focus on math and science is the correct thing to do.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Right but don’t you think ANY such higher school that is only devoted to one area is not fair to other areas of achievement?

        You say “nothing has come of that”.

        I say NOT providing the other fields and just this one is wrong on it’s face to start with.

        Many, many other fields are also vitally important and worthy of achievement and merit besides just math & science.

        I bet if you took 100 people you know that are successful, 1 or 2 are math and science whizzes.

        THe rest of in other fields that are vitally important also.

        We’ve just formed this premise that academic merit in math and science is all there is and nothing else is as important.

        It’s a dumb concept from the get go.

        1. f/k/a_tmtfairfax Avatar

          I don’t disagree that we need better focus on subjects other than just math and science. I’m just reporting what happened in Fairfax County over the years.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            Yes. But what justified doing ONLY a school for just math/science and not others, then later say “too bad, we have no other schools and no real plans either”?

            A lot of cultural/partisan stuff could be less an issue if:

            1. – We DID/DO have other schools for kids who excel in things besides math/science.

            2. – We provide tutor/other help for low-income kids with promise/potential in K-12 so that by the time the’re at the age for TJ, they actually can compete.

            What we’re doing instead is defending the status quo which favors some kids over others who did not have the same opportunity and access to the resources that other kids had.

            The WAY TJ is trying to fix it is WRONG, I agree but it was WRONG before that also and no one seemed interested in fixing that either.

            So we end up at a point like this today where decisions are made to try to “fix” prior wrongs with current day wrongs.

            IMO – of course.

  16. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    “National Merit hadn’t included enough stamps on the package, but nevertheless it got to Bonitatibus by mid-October …”

    And an award from these folks means something?

  17. Ruckweiler Avatar

    Would love to see these “administrative” losers’ curriculum vitae. Wonder if THEY received awards for academic excellence. The parents should raise Hell, Holle, or El Infierno until these two reprobates are sent packing and then watch the hiring process closely for their replacements.

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