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No more valedictorian? Principals, school board debate class rank

By Rebecca Rider

rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Principals and other high school officials are considering moving away from awarding two of the most coveted honors for graduating seniors: valedictorian and salutatorian.

At Monday’s Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education meeting, staff members presented an amended class ranking policy that would phase out the titles beginning with the incoming freshman class.

If the new policy is approved, current high school students would still be able to vie for the titles, but the Class of 2021 would be the first to forego them.

April Kuhn, executive director of administration and legal services, said the fight for the positions has become “somewhat competitive.”

Other officials, including Eisa Cox, director of secondary education, cited concerns that students are neglecting classes they need for their careers in favor of those in which they could earn a higher grade — and thus a higher GPA — as their key reasoning behind the proposal.

Class ranking would still remain in place. Cox said she and principals are considering replacing the valedictorian and salutatorian titles with a “graduating with honors” designation.

“What we’d like to move to is more of a college system, where it’s a Latin honors,” she said, “and that way you honor more students and students are encouraged to take the courses — not just because it’s an advanced placement course but because it’s a course that’s going to set them on their future career path.”

Often, she said, there might be only a single GPA point separating the top two students.

Board members, however, were hesitant to amend the policy. Travis Allen said that naming a valedictorian and salutatorian does not take away from schools expanding the honors for students. And a single point isn’t necessarily a small gap, he said.

“One point makes a difference in a ballgame, one point makes a difference in a test score, one point makes a difference in whether you get the contract, whether you get the job. … If you’re the two best, you’re the two best. And that is something to strive for,” he said.

Cox, however, said that the race is weighted in favor of classes that are considered traditionally more valuable, but an AP biology course is not inherently better than an advanced manufacturing course or taking a course at the community college.

It’s here that principals are seeing a problem: some students are dropping courses that are pertinent to their career choice in favor of courses that will earn them a higher GPA and put them in the running for valedictorian and salutatorian.

“Our students and, in particular, some of our parents make decisions for their child based on the race for val and sal,” said Luke Brown, principal at Salisbury High School. “They do not take the courses that benefit them and their future plans. They take the courses that award the most points to stay in the race.”

Brown and other principals argued that doing so often ends up reducing the ability of the student to get the education they need to succeed.

Last year, Brown said, Salisbury High had three valedictorians and seven salutatorians.

“All of these kids are taking the same classes because they know what the score is,” he said.

Angelo DelliSanti, principal at Jesse C. Carson High School, said schools would still have class rank and possibly the “graduating with honors” program or could award diplomas first to the top 10 students in each graduating class.

“So that wouldn’t be going away,” he said.

But he and other principals are seeing a significant number of students who are making decisions that are “not in their best interests because they’re seeking a title.” While students work “tremendously hard” to achieve valedictorian and salutatorian, they shouldn’t have to drop a class that they love or that will benefit their career to pursue recognition.

Retiring the valedictorian and salutatorian honors would not “cause dishonor” for the students, he said.

“It has no functional difference in what they’re able to say for themselves all throughout their high school career,” DelliSanti said. “Because they still get to say ‘I’m No. 1’ or ‘I’m No. 2.’ We just don’t honor it with that kind of distinction.”

Valedictorian and salutatorian are not listed on high school transcripts, Cox added, but class rankings are.

Board Chairman Josh Wagner said he has never heard complaints about the current system and that a small number of students are involved in the race for the titles.

“So it’s not like we have half of our students dropping their classes to fight for valedictorian. If we do, there’s a lot of them that are disappointed,” he said.

The principals said the fight for the top begins in freshman year, with the pack thinning out each year. Brown said that on the first day of high school, as many as 70 students “could have it in the back of their mind” when they’re scheduling courses.

“That’s roughly 15 percent of my student population making decisions on their academics based on where they might end up at the end,” he said.

Graduating with honors would allow students who got in over their head or who made mistakes a chance to make a comeback — as it’s more forgiving than valedictorian and salutatorian.

“So it still holds that proverbial carrot over some students who make poor decisions early,” Brown said.

“I just worry that we’re trying to appease too many folks,” Wagner said after some more discussion.

The board asked the staff to bring back more information on how many other districts in North Carolina are retiring the titles. The issue will be up for further discussion at the board’s May 22 business meeting.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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