Wake County valedictorians mixed about eliminating recognition

Group photo of the 29 Wake County students who were recognized as Class of 2016 valedictorians by their high schools.
Group photo of the 29 Wake County students who were recognized as Class of 2016 valedictorians by their high schools.

Some of Wake County’s top students are split on a proposal to do away with the long-standing tradition of naming the top two students in each high school senior class as the valedictorian and salutatorian.

Starting in 2019, Wake County’s high schools may switch to a new system that emulates 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 could end with the class of 2018 under the proposed change to school board policy.

Some of this year’s group of 29 Wake County high school valedictorians say the new system would minimize the hard work students put in to be at the top of their class. If the change is approved, state law will still require Wake to record class rank on student transcripts.

“If you’re third or fourth in the class it must really be hard not to get any recognition, but there’s something to be said for the value of academic competition,” said Heather Crew, 18, valedictorian of Leesville Road High School in Raleigh.

But some valedictorians say the new Latin honors system would better recognize the hard work of students who may have fallen just short of the top two slots. In the new system, seniors whose weighted grade-point average is at least 3.75 would receive one of the new titles.

“It allows everyone to relish their accomplishments and note someone who was just as accomplished as a valedictorian,” said Amarachi Achonu, 18, valedictorian of the East Wake School of Engineering Systems in Wendell.

Until this school year, East Wake High School had been split into four separate small schools. Even though it’s one school again, a valedictorian was named this year from each of the small schools.

Several valedictorians say they wish Wake would compromise by keeping the current system while also adding the Latin honors system.

“They should in general recognize honors students overall,” said Taylor Barr, 17, valedictorian of the East Wake School of Integrated Technology. “Students who work hard deserve recognition. But students who’ve worked really hard deserve a little more recognition.”

Michael Yarbrough, a Wake schools spokesman, said staff rejected the use of both systems because the Latin honors system is a more inclusive way to recognize students.

“It’s a better way of recognizing students than pitting students against each other by thousandths of a decimal point,” he said.

AP classes

American high schools have long recognized the accomplishments of valedictorians and salutatorians, who’ve put in long hours taking heavy workloads of advanced courses. Often those top students speak at the graduation ceremony.

“If I can inspire people with the speech, it would be great,” said Richard Marshall, 18, co-valedictorian of the Wake STEM Early College High School in Raleigh. “It’s also a proud moment for my family. They’ll love seeing me up there as valedictorian.”

This year’s valedictorians were recognized at last week’s school board meeting. But the same board members who praised them have also said the race to be named valedictorian can have a negative impact on students.

Critics of the current system point to how students may skip courses they’d like to take because it wouldn’t help them as much with their GPA. Honors courses and Advanced Placement courses are worth more when calculating GPA than regular classes.

Logan Jackson, 17, valedictorian of the East Wake School of Health Sciences, opted not to take a honors Spanish class this semester because it wouldn’t have helped his GPA as much as taking another AP course. Advanced Placement courses are worth the most credit because they cover college-level work.

But Jackson said taking a heavy load of AP classes, including four this semester, has made him more prepared for college.

Emily Pitt Whitfield, 17, valedictorian of the East Wake School of Arts Education and Global Studies, made the hard decision this school year to drop band in favor of taking another AP course. Whitfield said switching to the Latin honors system would allow students to branch out and take more courses they’d like without worrying about the impact on class rank.

“There’s got to be time to relax,” said Whitfield, daughter of Johnny Whitfield, managing editor of the Eastern Wake News and Garner-Cleveland Record, part of The News & Observer. “My preoccupation with becoming valedictorian prevented me from finding a balance in my life until my senior year.”


Critics of the current system also charge that the race to become valedictorian can lead to unhealthy competition instead of collaboration among students. But several valedictorians insisted the competition is not as bad as critics make it out to be.

“We encourage each other to try our best,” said Soomin Myoung, 18, valedictorian of Panther Creek High School in Cary. “It’s competitive in the sense where we all cooperate together to achieve goals. But there isn’t hostile competition.”

Melody Armistead, 19, said she was involved in a “friendly competition” with Richard Marshall that resulted in them being named co-valedictorians of the Wake STEM Early College.

“We were trying to see if we could top each other,” Armistead said. “If I’m going to be tied with anyone, I really wanted to be tied with Richard. He really gave me a run for my money.”

Several valedictorians said they’re neutral on the issue but can see the benefits of the change.

Recognizing more students could ease the stress on those who feel they’re outmaneuvered for the top spot, according to Jordan Nichols, 17, valedictorian of Knightdale High School.

“If you’re decimals away from being the valedictorian or being up there with the valedictorian, that’s a lot of stress on you,” Nichols said. “You’re going to feel like it’s your fault that you’re not number one.”

Anna Bennett, 17, Fuquay-Varina High School valedictorian, thinks dropping the recognition could discourage some students from striving to be their best. But, in theory, Bennett questioned whether it really matters if a senior is ranked first or fourth.

“There are people killing themselves to get into Ivy League colleges,” said Bennett, a cousin of Crew, the Leesville Road valedictorian. “School is stressful enough as it is.”

T. Keung Hui- 919-829-4534, @nckhui

Wake 2016 valedictorians

The Wake County school system named 29 valedictorians among the Class of 2016 student bodies. They are-

Apex High - Andrea Bowdon; Athens Drive High - Jena Nicole Keesee; Broughton High - Cameron Champion; Cary High - William Atkinson; East Wake School of Health Sciences - Logan Karl Jackson; East Wake School of Arts Education and Global Studies - Emily Pitt Whitfield; East Wake Engineering Systems - Amarachi Rita Achonu; East Wake Integrated Technology - Taylor Marie Barr; Enloe High - William Song; Fuquay-Varina High - Anna Kristine Bennett; Garner High - Sarah Dancausse; Green Hope High - Rebecca Li; Heritage High - Jason Lee; Holly Springs High - Malynn Eleanor Clark; Knightdale High - Jordan Nichols; Leesville Road High - Heather Thompson Crew; Millbrook High - Ana Iglesias; Middle Creek High - Hannah Levy; Panther Creek High - Soomin Myoung; Mary Phillips High - Keyoni Janecia Bowling; Sanderson High - Vince Ellington Friedman; Southeast Raleigh High - Shannon Aleese McLeod; Wake Forest High - Kayla Nicole Holder; Wakefield High - Meghan Elaine Dempsey; Wake Early College of Health and Sciences - Michael Ray Nock; Wake STEM Early College High School - Melody Armistead and Richard Marshall; Wake Young Men’s Leadership Academy - Seth Weber McGann; Wake Young Women’s Leadership Academy - Emma Rose Goodwin.