The final group of Wake County high school valedictorians are taking their bows this spring, two years after the school district ignited a national uproar by agreeing to phase out that longstanding academic tradition.
Wake County school leaders drew the ire of conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh in 2016 by saying that ending the naming of valedictorians and salutatorians — titles that go to the seniors with the two highest grade-point averages in their graduating class — would end "unhealthy competition."
The last group of 25 valedictorians competing under those old rules were recognized at this week's Wake school board meeting.
“I feel like I just made it in the nick of time," said Isabel Padalecki, 18, the valedictorian of Wake Forest High School. "I’m really excited. I’m very honored, and I’ve been waiting for this for a really long time.”
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The way Wake County recognizes top high school seniors will be changing starting next school year. Seniors will be recognized under the new Latin honors system, which is modeled on how colleges and universities recognize top-achieving graduates.
Under the new system, seniors with a weighted GPA of 4.25 or higher will receive the distinction summa cum laude. Those with a weighted GPA of 4.0 to 4.249 will get the distinction magna cum laude, and those with a weighted GPA of 3.75 to 3.99 will receive the designation cum laude.
A handful of Wake high schools now use the Latin honors system in lieu of naming valedictorians and salutatorians.
Wake school leaders said the new system would be a better way to recognize students who may have barely missed being named valedictorian or salutatorian by several decimal places.
School officials also said the change would allow students to take more of the courses they want instead of focusing on the advanced courses that would be worth more for their GPA.
'Dumb everybody down'
But the decision by North Carolina's largest school system didn't sit well with some conservatives. Limbaugh described Wake’s actions on his national radio talk show as part of an effort by the left to not elevate anybody.
“The left is all about lowering everybody so that everybody is equal and the same,” Limbaugh said in 2016. “So you punish achievement, raise their taxes, you eliminate their awards, you stop recognizing them, you eliminate classes where they can excel, and you just dumb everybody down.”
Wake school board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said the district's decision has been vindicated by how so many school districts in North Carolina and nationally, including Johnston and Orange counties, have also decided to stop naming valedictorians.
Johnson-Hostler said the new system will still motivate students to compete, but just not for a title.
"Students are still going to want to have access to rigor," Johnson-Hostler said. "Students who were striving to be valedictorian were ones striving to be admitted into college. The only thing that changes will be a label.”
A competition of another sort took place Tuesday as school board members kept track of the universities that each valedictorian planned to attend. A total of 10 valedictorians listed UNC-Chapel Hill compared to five for Duke University and four for N.C. State.
"We were keeping tally over here," said school board member Keith Sutton, a UNC-CH graduate. "UNC won by 2-to-1 margin."
"Quality not quantity," replied school board vice chairman Jim Martin, an N.C. State professor. "Go Pack.”
What the students say
Opinion about switching to the Latin honors system varied among Wake's valedictorians.
“I feel as though this perceived need for our culture to reduce competition, not just in academics but in various fields, is unnecessary," said Noah Dasanaike, 18, the valedictorian of Leesville Road High School in Raleigh. "Although I do think that there’s a lot of stress involved, especially with becoming valedictorian and being ranked No. 1 in such a large class, I think it ultimately is for the better.
"I think the need for me to take difficult classes across a wide spectrum was for the better.”
But Joan Pulickal, 18, the valedictorian of the Wake Young Women's Leadership Academy in Raleigh, said she supports the decision to stop naming valedictorians.
"I know in other schools there’s so much pressure and so much competition," she said. "Not that people don’t deserve respect and honor, but for the sake of other people I just don’t think they need it.”
Gustavo Parra Hernandez, 18, the valedictorian of Mary Phillips High School in Raleigh, said he liked how the new system will allow more seniors to be honored.
"I honestly feel like it’s better because we’re not singling out any one student," he said. "I feel like it’s a great opportunity for other students to feel like they accomplished something in high school as well.”
Wake decided to phase in the change so that the only current high school students affected were freshmen in 2016.
Johnson-Hostler, the school board chairwoman, said the delay gave the community time to adjust to the change, which she said was likely harder on parents than on students. She said middle school students and freshmen aren't thinking about becoming valedictorian unless it's their parents who are bringing it up.
"Change is difficult for everyone, so we recognize this isn’t an easy change," said Johnson-Hostler, the mother of a middle school student.
But Padalecki, the Wake Forest High valedictorian, thinks of the future students who won't be named valedictorian. Under state law, class rank will be still recorded on high school transcripts.
"The person who would have been valedictorian but doesn’t get that honor anymore would be really upset," Padalecki said.
Go to https://bit.ly/2w02xnb to view a list of 2018 Wake County Public School System valedictorians.