Terrin Busby Thompson, a senior at Qualia: The School for Deeper Learning in Calabasas, is among the 1 percent of SAT and PSAT takers to earn recognition as a National Merit Semifinalist this year.
Busby Thompson’s status qualifies him to move on in the national competition and possibly receive one of 7,250 scholarships that together total almost $28 million.
Busby Thompson had suspected that his high-test scores might garner him this initial award in the competition, and he felt both happiness and relief after securing the honor. “I felt like my work paid off,” he said. “It’s a very well recognized award, and I hope that it will be helpful in getting me into colleges…. It definitely made me a lot more confident in knowing that I test well and could handle these high-pressure, speed questions.”
While Qualia, Busby Thompson’s innovative secondary school, emphasizes writing, problem solving and critical thinking over “one and done” testing, students have often attained high SAT or ACT scores, including a handful of perfect scores over the school’s 15-year history, according to Qualia’s co-founder Jim Hahn, who lives in Sunset Mesa.
As a deliberately small school with seminar-sized classes, Qualia provides a personal and passion-driven education that allows students to delve more deeply into standard academic subjects, Hahn said.
In addition, students in all grades take a philosophy course, designed to sharpen critical thinking and develop college-level reading, writing, and analytical skills.
In 2008, Hahn began the first iteration of the school, Areté Preparatory Academy, with five students at a West L.A. house owned by his father, Jim, a former Palisades Rotary Club president.
The school grew and eventually moved to occupy an expansive suite at an office building on Olympic Blvd., but the pandemic made the space no longer tenable in large part due to the shared air conditioning system.
Hahn and longtime friend Jon Cassie, Qualia’s co-founder, discovered an ideal new facility at 4345 Las Virgenes Blvd. in Calabasas, which was previously occupied by director James Cameron’s MUSE School.
The two-acre space offered well-appointed classrooms plus an outdoor space that could be used for classes, athletics and projects. The school moved there last year and changed its name to Qualia.
In addition to regular coursework, students enjoy Qualia’s flexible dual enrollment program. Busby Thompson, 17, has already taken 10 college classes and is enrolled in two more this school year, the post-calculus mathematics course, Discrete Structures, and C++ Programming at Santa Monica and West L.A. colleges respectively.
Busby Thompson says he prefers the style of Qualia classes though, because they allow him to explore topics that fascinate him. For example, he studies two languages, Mandarin and Japanese, and created video games that explore their cultures and mythology as part of his final projects for both classes.
In addition, he takes two music electives, band and music production, and also studies piano and saxophone outside of school, often incorporating music into his class projects.
Qualia students participate in a semi-annual philosophy-based Symposium, allowing them to delve into questions and topics that fascinate them, while learning to research, write and present in the style of an academic conference. Busby Thompson usually employs this time to research topics in astronomy and physics, two other topics that intrigue him, and he aims to find a college that will meet his need for advanced STEM work while also supporting his artistic endeavors.
Hahn, whose wife Mio is both a Japanese teacher and the director of advancement at Qualia, recently celebrated Busby Thompson’s National Merit achievement with the rest of the school with cupcakes and an impromptu party.
“It’s thrilling to see a student with such sincere and deep passions be selected for this honor,” said Hahn, whose son Diego, 17, is also a senior at Qualia, while daughter Amy, 19, a 2020 graduate, is a junior at Pitzer. “The fact that Terrin’s education has been driven by his curiosity and goals, rather than by résumé-building, makes this recognition especially meaningful.”
To garner semifinalist status, California students have to achieve higher scores than students in most other states, because the National Merit Scholarship Corporation provides the awards proportionally by state and California students as a group have higher scores than many other states.
High school juniors generally take the PSAT to earn this initial honor, although students without access to this test may take the more challenging SAT instead. Regardless, students must follow this initial success by also attaining high scores on the SAT or ACT.
About 95 percent of National Merit Semifinalists will advance to the finalist level, and they will receive notification of this designation in February. Several types of scholarships will then be awarded in the spring of 2023, including 2,500 National Merit Scholarships of $2,500 each, and corporate-sponsored scholarships of varying amounts. Students also qualify for 3,800 scholarships provided directly by colleges and universities, including some offering free tuition, room, and board.