THOMAS JEFFERSON USED TO BE A TOP PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOL: The War on Merit Takes a Bizarre Turn: Why are administrators at a top-ranked public high school hiding National Merit awards from students and families?
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. . . .
“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.
It increasingly appears that ending your kids to public schools is parental malpractice.