Part II: (Part I: What’s a National Merit Scholar?)
The two parents driving this story, Asra Nomani, a former reporter and academic, and Shawnna Yashar, a lawyer, would have probably successfully grabbed the media cycle even if TJ’s administration had been error free. They are passionately committted to challenging the admissions changes at the school as leading members of organization challenging the school’s new admission policy.. Both were heavily involved in the election controversy that nearly got the school’s PTSA organization expelled from the national chapter, while Yashar spearheaded the lawsuit against Fairfax County School Board for keeping the schools closed. I support their right to advocate; my point here is simply that this entire issue didn’t occur as an organic parent movement but a focused, target effort to criticize the school.
The original story written by Nomani, makes the following accusations:
“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.”
These charges are all false.
The two adminstrators in question, principal Ann Bonitatibus and director of student services, Brandon Kosatka, have not been “withholding notifications”. They have not been denying the students with National Merit Commended status anything whatsoever. Commended ranking is not considered an award and does not render a student eligible for any scholarships they weren’t otherwise qualified for.
I’m reasonably certain TJ’s administrators simply overlooked notifying National Merit Commended students this year, and this year only.
Fairfax County School District says, categorically, that “each year”, TJ notifies students and that only this year had neither “email nor personal notification” occurred, probably “a unique situation due to human error”. The district–not the school–is saying that TJ’s Commended notifications happen on time each year. The rest of this piece assumes that the Bonitatibus and Kosatka had to prove this to the district and that this year was, in fact, an error. Which strikes me as likely.
The most likely explanation for human error is that National Merit screwed up and didn’t put enough postage on the huge pack of 240 Commended certificates that were sent to the school, so the package got there late. Instead of arriving in late September, they arrived in mid-October. Given the relentless administrative calendars, it’s quite believable that to someone, probably Kosatka, had moved onto other date-driven tasks and just forgot to build the email list and notify the students. As I wrote earlier about the life of an administrator, the task is a combination of grinding day to day tasks and
Routine yearly or regularly scheduled events that nonetheless require planning, which at the high school level might look like: the master schedule, state tests, graduation, accreditation.
Add “National Merit Commended notifications” to that list, particularly at a school where over 100 kids make semi-finalist alone. So maybe the director of Student Services, Brandon Kosatka, missed his window because of the delayed delivery and went on to the next pressing item on the school calendar and then six weeks later said oh shit I forgot and sent out the certificates in November.
So there it is. Because the school was late sending out the certificates, commended students who didn’t seek out the information on their own didn’t have the opportunity to list it as a fairly minor honor on their early admissions applications.
That’s….not a big deal.
One thing people need to remember is that TJ’s senior class is still part of the old highly competitive admissions process and even now still a highly competitive high school. TJ admission itself is a rough proxy for top 3-4% of all students. In 2022, 132 TJ students got Semifinalist, 240 got Commended. The remaining 19% of the 2023 graduating class probably had scores that missed the 3% cutoff by a point or two. In that context, Kosatka’s comment that “celebrating all but a few of the students” makes sense. They aren’t worried about low-achieving students resenting the two or three honors students, but rather actively making a big deal out of 80% of the class when the distinction is without a difference, at the TJ level.
Semifinalist is useful to a TJ student. Commended is not. (*Important future caveat below.) Commended wasn’t even that big a deal to the students themselves. In the November emails written by an angry parent (presumably activist lawyer Shawnna Yashar), she admits that her son didn’t even bother to tell her about his Commended status because it’s not a big deal. The emails also show that the school used to have a National Merit ceremony, but nobody came so they quit having it.
So the only screwup the school made was in failing to deliver relatively meaningless certificates or notification, probably because the certificates arrived late. Not only would this have minimal impact….well, understand that the deparment is called “student services” for a reason, not “mandated responsibilities”. High school counselling departments spend a huge amount of time and money on helping their seniors in college admissions, but high schools themselves have very few, if any, legally required duties regarding the application process.
To put this minor delay in notification in perspective:
If a district deliberately withheld notification of Semi-finalist status–a far more consequential award–or through incompetence or woke policy refused to complete the required paperwork for students, that school wouldn’t have violated any education law that the offended student could point to. Winning any sort of damages would be difficult. What would the damages be? They might have made it to finalist status? Cool, but so what? They might have gotten a scholarship? Hard to prove. I’m sure people would have been fired in that event. But in a case far more actively damaging and malicious than what is at hand here, there’s still not a lot of legal obligation students can demand from their school. All responsibilities regarding college admission are on the student. Even if the school screws up.
The strategists driving this media manipulation understand, I think, that the failure notification story wouldn’t hold up–it was almost immediately challenged, although sadly not by anyone in the media reporting on this. That may explain why they have emphasized that the failure to notify students rendered them ineligible for National Merit scholarships.
This is either a deliberate lie or simple ignorance.
Commended students aren’t eligible for any National Merit scholarships. The only related scholarships they can apply for are called Special Scholarships with corporate sponsorship. (The first link goes through the procedure I’ve summarized below, the second has a list of sponsors and criteria on pages 9-10).
In many cases, corporations offer a specific number of grants to high school seniors of employees (sometimes also in a specific region or seniors with a particular major). In years when they can’t find enough finalists meeting their criteria, they will use non-finalists.
To qualify for a special scholarship, students have to complete an Entry Form with the sponsoring corporation as well as an application with the National Merit by mid-December. The National Merit program then compiles a specific list of students that qualify for each particular scholarship. Commended students have no priority over non-commended. If the scholarship goes to non-finalists, the award is not designated National Merit and recipients can’t call themselves National Merit Scholars.
Any student who didn’t apply or didn’t meet the specific criteria would not be considered. Any student whose parents worked for a company offering a corporate scholarship could have filled out an application at any time after getting their PSAT scores the year before. The delayed or even non-existent notification of Commended status is completely irrelevant and oh, by the way, came in long before the deadline for Special Scholarships.
No Commended student was denied the right to earn a scholarship because there are no scholarships for Commended students.
Like I said: lying or ignorant.
The only potential harm done by the delayed notification was in the limited sense that students who weren’t aware that Commended cutoffs could be looked up online and who would have included that information on their early admissions applications. That’s a small group. And that potential harm is being remedied by the school reaching out to colleges to ensure they have this information for the students’ applications.
This whole story is just utter, unmitigated bullshit–so much so that I’ve spent considerable time trying to see if I’ve missed something. Surely someone who gets paid to report would have looked up some of this? But not.
I understand why the activist parents are ginning up the story. They want to create political or even legal sympathy for their efforts to restor TJ’s admissions policies.
I don’t understand why the media–not just the reporters, but the many pundits and policy analysts on Twitter–doesn’t take the time to do even minimal research to understand how asinine this story is. Sure, these are people on both the left and right who despise public schools and consider them incompetent. But they aren’t supposed to be activist hacks.
*Many colleges are now prohibiting test scores as part of admissions. TJ is also ending its test-based admissions so it will no longer be a given that the students are top 3-4%. The class of 2026 may value Commended status in a way that current TJ students do not. No test-based admissions, no test scores on applications, top 3% might be useful information. This doesn’t explain why current parents are freaking out, as it would have no impact on current seniors. It might explain why the school took the step of reaching out to the colleges and why they are planning on new procedures going forward.