By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 26, 2008; Page B01
Matthew Nuti finished 10th grade at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology with much to be proud of. He excelled in oratory on the Model United Nations team. He was a starting lineman in junior varsity football. His English teacher complimented his classroom wit. Like virtually all students at the very selective public magnet school in Fairfax County, he scored near the top on the Virginia state Standards of Learning exams.
Oh, and he had a 2.8 grade point average for the school year. At most schools, that would be a B-minus, not too bad, but at Jefferson it has just gotten him expelled.
This is puzzling to Matthew, 16, and his family, because Jefferson, often known as TJ, admitted him in 2006 when he had a 2.8 average in middle school. His high score on the entrance test helped secure him a seat in the regional school. But TJ administrators, influenced by an accreditation committee recommendation, decided last year to make 3.0 the minimum to stay in the school. At that time, fewer than 2 percent of students fell below that benchmark.
This month administrators told five sub-3.0 students, including Matthew, that they would have to switch to neighborhood schools. In addition, TJ is taking steps toward requiring a 3.0 middle-school average for admission.
The mandatory minimum B is a very unusual policy for a public school. Then again, TJ is a very unusual school. The episode raises a question: For selective public schools, what GPA isn't good enough?
Some educators, including the history teacher who gave Matthew his worst mark in 10th grade -- a D -- say they are uncomfortable with the new 3.0-or-out policy. Expressions of solidarity with Matthew have flooded a Facebook page created by his sister Jessica, a rising senior at TJ. (Brother Drew is a TJ graduate.) "Everybody fails at some things sometimes, and we are, honestly, just kids," said one Jefferson student who posted a comment on the page without leaving a name. "Give us a little grace, please, and have a little faith." Some student e-mails also defended the new rule.
Electrical engineer Tony Nuti and accountant Liz Nuti say their son Matthew has been mistreated. "I believe that the rule is absurd and is doing more harm to our students than good," Liz Nuti said. The parents acknowledge that Matthew has trouble organizing his time. But "he is a happy, healthy, well-rounded child with no vices," his mother said.
TJ parents and students were put on notice last summer. In an Aug. 20 letter announcing the 3.0 minimum, Principal Evan Glazer wrote that students should be "placed in a learning environment appropriate to their academic challenge and motivation level." Fairfax schools spokesman Paul Regnier said 34 students with averages under 3.2 were placed in an "intervention" program to help them improve. All but five eventually met the 3.0 standard.
TJ draws students from Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier counties and the city of Falls Church. Measured by the SAT, it has the nation's highest-scoring public school students. Its Class of 2007 had an average score of 1495 on the SAT reading and math tests. The next-highest average scores were 1409 at the University Laboratory High School in Urbana, Ill., and 1405 at Stuyvesant High School in New York, selective magnet schools that do not set a GPA minimum.
A check of other nationally prominent magnets found six with no minimum, two with a 2.0 minimum and one with a 2.5 minimum. Magnet programs at Richard Montgomery and Montgomery Blair high schools in Montgomery County have no GPA minimum. Banneker Academic High School in the District requires a 2.0. The Roanoke Valley Governor's School for Science and Technology in Roanoke, Va., has a 3.0 rule, but it is a half-day program whose students remain enrolled at their home schools.
Matthew's final report card in June showed A's in physical education, drivers education and photojournalism. Other marks were not as good: English, B-plus; chemistry, B; pre-calculus, C; French, C; and world history and geography, D. His official average was C-plus because Fairfax County does not use the term "minus" in grades. Even then, Matthew said, he remained optimistic. "I thought they wouldn't actually try to remove me from the school," he said.
When officially informed he had to go back to Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, he blamed world history and geography teacher Carolyn Gecan. He said that her map quizzes required painful and rote memorization and that he could not understand why she did not like his essays when other teachers praised his writing.
Gecan has a degree in history and geography and has taught at TJ for 19 of her 36 years in Fairfax County schools. Allowed to comment under a privacy waiver signed by Liz Nuti, Gecan said Matthew received zeroes for several writing assignments, including two major essays not turned in on time.
She said she was disturbed, however, to learn that school officials had not shown her until recently months-old e-mails from Liz Nuti complaining about how her son was being treated and saying he had become physically ill because of her class. Gecan said Matthew rejected her offers to work with him during lunch or activity periods, saying he was too busy with Model United Nations, sports and the yearbook. If she had known how upset he was, Gecan said, "I would have acted much more vigorously to make sure he came in."
Matthew denied rejecting the teacher's offer of help.
Regnier said Matthew's mediocre math and science grades and apparent lack of passion for those subjects were important in the decision, because those subjects are the core of TJ's curriculum. He also indicated some flexibility in the policy: A sub-3.0 student with good math and science grades, Regnier said, might be allowed to stay. He said administrators think that students in Matthew's situation would be better off elsewhere because "students with low grades at TJ can put themselves at a disadvantage compared to their peers at other schools."