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Schools end traditional knighting of valedictorian

haywoodThe senior with the highest grade point average will no longer be crowned valedictorian at high school graduation in Haywood County.

The Haywood County School Board voted to do away with the time-honored tradition of putting a lone valedictorian on a pedestal and instead will recognize high-achieving students with a suite of honorary titles — Summa Cum Laude, Magna Cum Laude or Cum Laude, each based on a GPA range.

“It gives a lot more students an opportunity to be recognized,” said Bobby Rogers, school board member.

Dr. Bill Nolte, assistant superintendent, said the new system will be a better reflection of the numerous high performing students. 

“It seems appropriate to focus on the ‘many’ rather than the ‘few,’” Nolte said. 

Nolte was quick to point out that class rank isn’t being done away with: it will still be measured and included on students’ high school transcripts, which accompany their college applications. 

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But anointing a single achiever at graduation — given the razor thin separation in GPAs among top graduates — didn’t do justice to the other students in that upper echelon.

“It is a tiny margin. It is sometimes hundredths of a point in the GPA,” Nolte said. 

Maggie Rogers, a former Tuscola student who’s now an engineering major at N.C. State University, supports the change. She ranked 7th by the GPA measuring stick when she graduated in 2014 — an impressive academic achievement — but only the valedictorian and salutatorian were recognized come graduation day.

“Students who have achieved high GPA's in general should be equally recognized. It would be more accurate to reward all students who did well in their high school careers…rather than just the one student who managed to get the highest GPA,” Rogers said.

Rogers said a more inclusive recogonition system could be more motivating to more students by giving them something else to aim for than a single top slot they didn’t have a shot at anyway.

 “For most of us, we never stood a chance at being valedictorian,” she said.

But for valedictorian London Schumacher, a friend of Rogers’ in the Tuscola class of 2014, the recognition was both meaningful and motivating.

“It creates healthy competition and helps students strive for academic success in the classroom,” Schumacher said. “It allowed me to push myself farther academically than I thought was possible. I think getting rid of the titles would be a shame for those students who have gone the extra mile and pushed themselves for one of the two honors.”

Schumacher was a dedicated and exceptional swimmer, and studying after practice was sometimes hard.

“Having the title in reach for me, was a lot of times what kept me motivated to study for the test after a long practice,” said Schumacher, now an exercise science major at Gardner-Webb University. “Yes, the titles can add more stress onto the students, but for the majority of kids the stress they will have in high school doesn't compare to the stress of college classes.”

Schumacher added that her parents also deserve credit for her role of valedictorian due to the sacrifices they made for her educational achievements.

Nolte said the change isn’t intended to diminish the value of what valedictorian stood for.

“We know there are students and families who work really hard for that class rank,” Nolte said. 

To Emily Melrose, who graduated from Tuscola several years ago, the jostling among peers for the valedictorian title that went on seems counter-productive, even leading to minor feuds among friends.          

“It created an unhealthy competiveness in the students in the top classes that doesn't really need to be there,” said Melrose, although she personally wasn’t part of that competition.

Haywood County Schools aren’t alone. Defrocking the long-standing tradition of a valedictorian is a national trend. From Boulder, Colorado, to Bangor, Maine, valedictorians have fallen by the wayside.

The New Yorker did an article a decade ago foreshadowing the beginning of the end of valedictorians. Reasons for the shedding the title varied — including breeding unhealthy competition, undue pressure and divisiveness. 

Competition for valedictorian is so ruthless at some schools that lawsuits have erupted challenging how GPAs are calculated, how ties are handled, and even second-guessing a grade from a particular teacher that may have tipped the scales.

In Jackson County, the valedictorian accolade was dropped several years ago. 

“It is controversial in every system I have been in. Some parents do like that competition and there are always a handful battling for that first spot,” said Jackson County Superintendent Mike Murray.

The decision in Jackson County was made before Murray’s time, but he believes the over-riding reason was a lack of consistency.

“In this day and age now, it is a trend that most systems are looking in to,” Murray said.

The theory of a valedictorian has grown increasingly flawed in the complex world of Advanced Placement classes, early college credits and online courses.

AP classes, taught at a higher college level, are weighted when calculating GPAs. Students were historically tempted to load up on as many AP courses as possible to move up the GPA ladder, but an AP history class might not be as rigorous as an AP chemistry class.

“Some students taking three or four AP classes can have an easier time than those only taking two due to the inconsistency of how hard each AP class is,” Rogers said.

Nolte said that wasn’t the underlying reason for the change, but realizes that could be a side effect.

“We don’t know if this will cause students to think about the courses they should be taking rather than the courses with the most weight, but if that is one of the outcomes then that will be a positive benefit,” Nolte said.

For students who are in it to win, like Schumacher, acing an AP class is no small feat and deserves all the weighted points it brings.

“Every student has the same opportunity to take the AP courses that will put them ahead, but the separation comes in for those who take AP classes for college credit and are willing to put in the work, and those who take AP classes and are okay with getting a C because it's a ‘hard class,’” Schumacher said.

Another potential downside in the valedictorian system was an unlevel playing field created by students moving to Haywood County part way through high school — they had an unfair advantage if the school system they came from offered weighted AP courses as early as 10th grade or structured class schedules differently.

“For the five years I attended Tuscola graduation ceremonies, the valedictorian has almost always transferred from another school during their high school years,” Rogers said. “Most transfer students have credits we just can't catch up to.”

Melrose also witnessed transfer students catapulting ahead in rank thanks to credits they brought with them.

“This gives everyone a fair chance,” Melrose said of the change.

Valedictorians and salutatorians historically deliver a graduation speech. It’s a epic role, trying to capture the jubilance of the occasion but also impart an inspirational send-off into adulthood.

Nixing the academic honor opens another can of worms: how will schools pick a student to give the speech?

There’s myriad methods out there — some schools have a graduation committee chose, others allow top performing students to vote amongst themselves, or they hold contest. Some simply defer to class president.

“Each school may set a framework for how they are going to do it. Each school may do it differently,” Nolte said.

The change won’t go into affect for two years, so juniors and seniors who’ve been competing for that top academic title can still see their GPA rivalry play out.

“We are slowly heading in to it, so it will give students the opportunity who were on that trajectory to continue on that track,” said School Board Chairman Chuck Francis.


Haywood schools tout high test scores, including another first in the state

Haywood County Schools once more clocked in at the top in recently released statewide test scores.

Haywood County is 15th out of 115 school systems statewide.

“This is pure academic performance based on all the tests being put together,” said Dr. Bill Nolte, assistant superintendent, during a presentation to the school board this week.

Haywood County was 15th out of 115 school systems last year as well. Nolte said Haywood’s performance is all the more impressive considering the company at the top includes some of the state’s more affluent counties. It’s not surprising that Chapel Hill’s school system, with the lowest poverty rate in the state, is going to be first.

“I want to argue that if your free-and-reduced lunch rate is higher than 50 percent and you are 15th in the state, you are really getting after it,” Nolte said. 

Riverbend Elementary School has a particularly impressive claim to fame: it ranked first out of more than 850 Title I elementary schools in the state. Junaluska and Bethel were in the top 3 percent of elementary schools statewide, and another five were in the top 15 percent.

This shows that all Haywood County Schools are strong across the board, and it isn’t just a few pulling up Haywood’s overall rank statewide. All elementary and middle schools in the county were in the top 25 percent and the two traditional high schools in the top 30 percent.

Nolte said the school district’s success is a community effort.

“There are a lot of people who contribute — grandmas reading to their grandchildren at night are contributing,” Nolte said.

This year for the first time, Nolte’s presentation to the school board analyzing Haywood’s test scores and putting them in a statewide context pointed out that Haywood County Schools out-performed the vast majority of charter schools statewide in various data types.

“We are in a market now where we are competing with charters. We did not create this competitive nature, but since it is there we want to share the data,” said Nolte. Each charter school operates like its own mini, independent school district of one, but are still required to take state standardized tests.

Shining Rock Classical Academy just opened this year in Haywood County, and thus won’t be included in state test score data until next year.

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