The Magazine

First in Her Class

From the July 7 / July 14, 2003 issue: The valedictorian sued, and the town turned on her.

Jul 7, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 42 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Moorestown, New Jersey

NO ONE in Moorestown can remember a graduation day quite like the one the class of 2003 had on June 19. The valedictorian was nowhere to be seen. The salutatorian was greeted like a conquering hero, with a long standing ovation. And then of course, there were the media. Television crews and print journalists descended on the small Philadelphia suburb, while banks of photographers crowded in the gymnasium's crevices. They came not to see graduation but to report on the girl who had graduated top in the class and wasn't there, Blair Hornstine.

Blair Hornstine became a celebrity this spring by suing the Moorestown school district. To accommodate unspecified disabilities, the district had arranged home instruction for most of her high school career. This proved an academic boon--she ended up with a 4.689 grade point average, .055 higher than runner-up Kenneth Mirkin's 4.634. For a variety of reasons, superintendent Paul Kadri wanted to name the two of them co-valedictorians. Whereupon Blair sued--not just to retain the distinction for herself but also for $2.7 million in damages. She won the first round--getting an injunction that made her the sole valedictorian. But in the process, she made a lot of enemies in this one-Starbucks town.

In a few months Blair will leave Moorestown and begin her freshman year at Harvard with a star-quality résumé--academic honors, extracurricular achievements, scholarships and charitable works galore. A surprising number of townspeople, though, will be delighted to see her go. They view her no-holds-barred effort to secure the top spot in the Moorestown class of 2003 as a Bobo version of the Texas cheerleader case--a combination of obsessive pursuit of academic credentials and parental ambition run amok. In recent years, an increasing number of American high schools have given up naming valedictorians altogether--a move that proponents of excellence and high achievement typically denounce as misplaced egalitarianism. It may be that in part. But the Moorestown saga suggests a simpler explanation: self-defense on the part of school officials.

BLAIR HORNSTINE lives in a pristine neighborhood where the houses sell for anywhere from $550,000 to $1.5 million. Her father, Louis, is a New Jersey superior court judge in neighboring Camden County, and her mother, Linda, is a stay-at-home mom who's been active in the community for many years. Her brother, Adam, graduated as Moorestown High's valedictorian in 1999 and also went to Harvard.

In 1999 Blair enrolled as a freshman and began compiling the type of résumé that college admissions counselors dream of. That first year, she won the Prudential Spirit of the Community award and was featured on CNN for her extensive volunteer work. As a senior, she was a third-team member of USA Today's All-USA High School Academic squad. Over the past four years, she's won enough scholarships and awards to fill a small truck, including an essay prize from MENSA (the high-IQ club), $20,000 from Toyota, a $20,000 Coca-Cola scholarship, and a $25,000 award from Discover, the credit card company. She also joined the model Congress and debate team and became captain of the moot court team.

Then there's the charitable work. As chair of the Tri-County Food Drive she collected, according to her bio on the Points of Light Foundation's website, 56,000 pounds of food for the Food Bank of South Jersey and some 600 prom dresses for needy teens with the Tri-County Prom Dress Drive, which she founded. As the New Jersey state chair for the Smile Train, she raised money for cleft palate surgeries in China.

But Blair's health was poor. She and her family have never disclosed the exact nature of her disability; it is alternately referred to as "chronic fatigue" and an "immune system disorder." A close friend of the family told me "she developed an illness when she was visiting Turkey, and when she came back--it's kind of a disease that you break out in blisters all over you. And the only way you can control it is medication," which made Blair "very tired."

Following federal and state disabilities law guidelines, the school district's child study team came up with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to accommodate Blair's health problems. Mostly this meant home tutors and extra time for assignments and tests. She took two classes at home during her freshman year. Her sophomore year, she took four classes at home. By junior year she was coming to school only for homeroom and two periods. During her senior year she came to school for homeroom and one class--all of her other instruction was provided by home tutors.