The Wake County school system may stop naming high school valedictorians and salutatorians and instead switch to a system of recognizing more of the top students in each graduating class.
The school board’s policy committee on Tuesday backed changes to the class ranking policy that would emulate what’s used in colleges by recognizing students with titles such as summa cum laude, magna cum laude and cum laude based on their grades. The valedictorian and salutatorian designations would end with the class of 2018. Students who are now freshmen, and expected to graduate in 2019, would be the first to have the new designation.
Literally, the Latin designations mean “with highest praise,” “with great praise” and “with praise.”
The policy still needs to be voted on by the full board. But approval is likely because seven of the nine board members were at Tuesday’s meeting.
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“I endorse the idea totally 100 percent,” said school board Chairman Tom Benton. “I think the competition for valedictorian and salutatorian over the course of the years has become almost toxic. It’s unhealthy for individuals. It’s unhealthy for collaboration.”
Benton said the change will let students set personal academic goals without depending on what other students are doing.
Currently, the senior with the highest grade-point average is named the valedictorian, and the student with the second-highest GPA is the salutatorian. Both students typically make speeches at their graduations.
The new policy proposes using the Latin honors system of recognizing students with a weighted GPA of 4.25 or higher with the distinction of summa cum laude. Seniors with a weighted GPA of 4.0 to 4.249 would receive the distinction of magna cum laude.
Seniors with a weighted GPA of 3.75 to 3.99 could receive the designation of cum laude.
Wake’s high schools are not required to name a valedictorian or salutatorian. Drew Cook, Wake’s senior director for high school programs, said some newer high schools such as Apex-Friendship and Rolesville and the Vernon Malone College and Career Academy are not planning to name a valedictorian.
Cook said that when the proposal was presented to high school principals and deans in the fall it was welcomed as a way to promote a consistent policy among all the schools.
“There was a collective sigh of relief and a thank you for considering changing the process,” Cook told the committee.
Even if the change is approved, state law will still require Wake to record class rank on student transcripts.
Some online comments have accused Wake of being politically correct by considering the change.
But Nancy Caggia, a longtime activist in programs for academically gifted students, praised the potential change as a way to reduce stress on students. Caggia, a parent of a junior at Green Hope High School in Cary, said students often take classes for the wrong reason because they’re worried about class rank.
“High school should be a time to try different subjects like arts, accounting or career options, various science subjects and different social studies courses like law or government,” Caggia said in an interview. “It’s not the time to fast track to as many AP courses as possible worrying about class rank.”
Wake is the largest school district in North Carolina. Some school systems such as Johnston County have already decided to stop naming valedictorians and salutatorians after 2018 in favor of the Latin honors system.
Chrissy Deal, a spokeswoman with Durham Public Schools, said a team has been meeting to review the issue.
Some of the high schools that are generally considered to be among the best in the state academically don’t name a single valedictorian.
High schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system name as many as 15 or 20 valedictorians.
The N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, a public boarding high school in Durham that gets students from across the state, doesn’t name a valedictorian. Robert Gotwals, a science instructor at the school, pointed to how students who want to speak at the graduation compete to win the right in an essay contest.
“Yes, competition is a good thing, kept in perspective,” Gotwals commented online about Wake’s proposed change. “As an educator of academically gifted students, I also see the damage that unbridled competition can do to the mental and physical health of these students.
“So yes, there IS something wrong with some kinds of competition, and the valedictorian/salutatorians battle oftentimes brings out the worst kind.”
Raleigh Charter High School, which annually makes different national lists for top U.S. high schools, uses the Latin honors system instead of naming a valedictorian. Principal Lisa Huddleston said that not naming a valedictorian promotes the idea that students are to work cooperatively.
“It’s a much more healthy environment for kids to be in a classroom working together,” Huddleston said in an interview Tuesday.
Also on Tuesday, the committee backed policies that would leave in place the current wording about the teaching and recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Board members said it was not their intention to encourage teachers to talk about how people have been coerced to take the pledge during the nation’s history.