The Jackson County Board of Education is considering a policy revision to replace valedictorian and salutatorian honors at graduation with the Latin system used by most colleges.
The policy is on public comment until Feb. 21. Individuals may make comments on the proposed revisions by visiting the Jackson County Schools website at boe.jack.k12.wv.us. Once on the website, navigate to the district menu and click on the link for board policies on comment.
The board will vote on the change at a future meeting after reviewing the public comments.
Under the proposed new policy, the use of valedictorian and salutatorian would conclude with the graduating class of 2019. Beginning with the 2019-2020 school year, graduation honors would be based on the Latin system.
According to the proposed policy, the grade point averages, as calculated on the West Virginia Education Information System (WVEIS), would reflect all course work taken for high school credit.
The grade point average requirement for each designation under the new proposed policy is as follows: Summa Cum Laude 4.0 and above; Magna Cum Laude 3.8-3.99; and Cum Laude 3.6-3.79.
Board members and educators discussed the proposed change during a regular BOE meeting Thursday.
Ripley High School Beverly Shatto believes the valedictorian/salutatorian system is no longer in the best interest of students, and the conversation about making a change is not a new one, he said.
“It becomes a game and ceases to be about education,” she said. “I’ve been an educator for 34 years, and we’ve been talking about it for half my career. We were just afraid to talk about it publicly until now.”
Students vying for the top spots are placed under intense pressure, Shatto said. Most students themselves are less concerned about the titles, but they are pushed at home to attain them and suffer mentally when they do not, she said. Shatto also said she’s seen the level of competition involved affect students’ relationships with each other.
“I haven’t had a single student come and ask me about it, but their parents are debating it on Facebook,” she said. “I really feel like we should just put the parents’ pictures up on the wall instead of the kids. A lot of it is because it’s a family tradition.”
And the benefits don’t usually outweigh the consequences, Shatto said. There are some scholarships influenced by valedictorian/salutatorian status, but most are based on overall GPA and ACT scores.
Director of secondary education Jim Mahan said he has seen first-hand the damage the added stress can cause for students. He related a story in which a student lost the top spot and the fallout jeopardized their graduation.
“The next grading period, they failed every class,” Mahan said. “There’s a fine line between pushing your kids and this obsession.”
Only a few students are successful enough to be in the running for the top two slots, Mahan said, and at times they are competing for a hundredth or thousandth of a percentage point. This means they are under a level of pressure their peers don’t face.
“You’re talking about three or four kids, so you’re essentially putting all your eggs in that basket in terms of the pressure,” Mahan said.
Board President Bobbi Farrell said she likes the Latin system, but wondered if it should compliment the valedictorian/salutatorian honors rather than replace them. Competition is healthy, she said, and students who work hard to achieve academically should be recognized.
“It’s a life lesson. Why not challenge them? Isn’t that the world we live in,” she said.
Board member Daniel Barnette said he understands both points of view, but he questioned whether achieving one of the top spots was worth the potential damage to students.
Barnette said he has personally seen students take advanced placement course just to improve their chances of winning one of the two honors. The system can be manipulated to affect the desired outcome, he said, and it’s often not the students who are doing the manipulating.
“You have parents who know the game and parents who don’t know the game,” he said. “You have very young students taking as many advanced placement classes as they can just so they can become valedictorian or salutatorian.”
Shatto said students take classes that fit with their life goals, and they should not have to base their decisions on setting a schedule that will get them the highest GPA in order to win valedictorian. She said students who take classes based on their interests and life goals are being truer to themselves and obtain a more well-rounded education.
“Some students spend their entire four-year high-school career focused solely on this one goal, and it’s a shame in my book,” she said.