Prince William County schools Superintendent LaTanya McDade publicly apologized this week after the school division determined that four of the county’s 13 high schools did not notify students who received letters of commendation from the National Merit Scholarship Program.
In comments made during the Wednesday, Jan. 18 school board meeting, McDade blamed the misstep on “sheer human error” and said the principals and administrators at the four schools “are devastated that this was a missed opportunity to recognize their students’ accomplishments.”
According to a school division inquiry conducted last week, 28 students from Battlefield, Patriot, Colgan and Forest Park high schools had not been notified that they were named commended students.
All other Prince William County high schools either did not have any commended students or made the notifications in a timely manner. The school division does not know how many students throughout the county received the recognition. The school division also does not know how many students earned the award last year or whether schools notified them in a timely manner, according to Diana Gulotta, a school division spokeswoman.
The National Merit Scholarship Program “does not send division-level information, and we do not have this data from previous years,” Gulotta said in an email.
The awards are based on students’ scores on the PSAT, a standardized test most students take during their junior year in high school. They are not as selective as the program’s semi-finalist and finalist designations, which are announced each year in February.
In the U.S., about 34,000 of the 1.5 million students who take the PSAT are recognized as commended students annually, according to the National Merit Scholarship Program.
Commended students do not go on to compete as semi-finalists or finalists but may be eligible for special scholarships offered by some corporate sponsors, according to the National Merit Scholarship Program website.
Seven Prince William County students were recently named 2022 National Merit Scholarship win…
Because only individual high schools receive notification about the awards, McDade said that going forward, “every school” in Prince William County will have an identified staff member responsible for ensuring all students are notified of such recognitions.
The school division is also reaching out to the National Merit Scholarship Program to request a review of their notification process and ask that they notify students directly – via notices sent to their homes – rather than relying on high schools to notify students, McDade said.
“To date, all impacted student families have been notified, and we thank our families for their understanding,” McDade said.
McDade’s comments came about a week after Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares (R) announced a formal investigation into why Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a regional magnet high school, did not notify its commended students last fall. Miyares expanded his investigation to the entire Fairfax County school division – the largest in the state – after it was discovered that other Fairfax County high schools also failed to notify students.
Since then, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) has announced his effort to pass a new law that would require school divisions to notify students and their parents about recognitions and awards that could help students apply for college or win scholarships. The law would apply to any awards based on students' performance on the PSAT.
Youngkin said he had asked state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-12th, of Henrico, County and Del. Nick Freitas, R-30th, of Culpeper County, to carry the bill.
"The legislation … will ensure that merit and accolades are celebrated in the Commonwealth," said Youngkin in a statement. "We will not allow our students and their parents to be left uninformed of their hard-earned recognition in what we now know was widespread across more than a dozen schools in multiple school divisions."
In a statement announcing his investigation, Miyares suggested that Fairfax County schools might have intentionally withheld the awards and said the action could be a violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act.
“My office will investigate the entire Fairfax County Public Schools system to find out if any students were discriminated against and if their rights were violated,” Miyares’ statement said.
All three of the state’s largest school divisions – Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun – have since made public statements saying they have conducted internal investigations into the awards and found that some were delayed, but not intentionally.
The Prince William Republican Committee issued a statement Wednesday, Jan. 18 accusing the county school division of deliberately not informing the commended students.
“This is being done because these schools have placed equality of outcome over individual achievement in education. This is a policy that is unfair to all students, and is particularly harmful to Asian American students," Committee Chairman Denny Daugherty said in a statement posted on the committee’s Facebook page.
But Prince William County School Board Chairman Babur Lateef (At Large), who is of Asian descent and had a son recently graduate from Thomas Jefferson H.S., said earlier this week that the oversight was in no way intentional.
Lateef said the school division frequently recognizes and celebrates students’ achievements in community newsletters, presentations before the school board and other ways.
“For me, the worst thing I can hear, as a school board chairman, is that someone doesn’t know about our students’ achievements or the many opportunities that are available to our students,” Lateef said.
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org