Wake County school board approves elimination of valedictorians

Group shot of the 29 Class of 2016 Wake County high school valedictorians. The Wake County school system will stop naming valedictorians after 2018.
Group shot of the 29 Class of 2016 Wake County high school valedictorians. The Wake County school system will stop naming valedictorians after 2018.

Amid criticism from national conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh, the Wake County school board unanimously gave final approval Tuesday to a policy that will phase out the naming of high school valedictorians and salutatorians.

The revised policy would prevent principals in North Carolina’s largest school system from selecting a valedictorian and salutatorian – titles that go to the seniors with the two highest grade-point averages – after 2018. Starting in 2019, high schools will switch to the Latin honors system where seniors will get recognition if they have a weighted grade-point average of at least 3.75.

Conservatives such as Limbaugh and Eric Bolling of Fox News have criticized school leaders for saying the new system will end the “unhealthy competition” and stress that exists to be named valedictorian. But school board members said the change is a better way to recognize students who may have barely missed being named valedictorian or salutatorian by several decimal places.

“We’re trying to recognize all the high-achieving students,” said school board member Susan Evans. “We’re not trying to make everybody seem the same.

“The reality was there was beginning to be such a minute difference between the top position or the second position and the third position that it was not seeming to be a reasonable assessment with our large graduating classes.”

The 8-0 vote came after Heritage High School seniors James Hamil and Jason Lee, the Wake Forest school’s valedictorian, unsuccessfully urged the school board to wait until 2020 to implement the change. They said the change should start with students who will begin as freshman this fall.

VIDEO: Jason Lee, 17, the valedictorian of Heritage High School in Wake Forest, reacts after unsuccessfully asking the Wake County school board to delay the elimination of high school valedictorians by a year to after 2019.

The policy change is scheduled to go into effect with the Class of 2019, who are currently freshmen.

“This would completely void all the hard work of current freshmen who unknowingly entered high school believing the valedictorian title was attainable and would be dejected that their determination is going down the drain,” said Hamil, 17.

But Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore said staff wants the change to go into effect in 2019 because that will be the first senior class affected by new statewide grading changes that she said will result in more top students having the same GPA.

State law will still require class rank to be listed on student transcripts.

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, which is modeled on how colleges and universities recognize top-achieving graduates.

“We’re trying to get to a point where we have a clear target and it is a hard target,” said school board Chairman Tom Benton. “A 4.25 is not giving a trophy to every participant. It is giving recognition to an extremely small percentage of our students.”

Benton said students shouldn’t be penalized because they chose to take a course they’re interested in that doesn’t have as much impact on class rank as an advanced course.

Johnston County’s school board has already voted to switch to the Latin honors system. The Orange County school board could give final approval next week to use the new system.

“Latin honors really recognizes all the students for their hard work,” said Tim Lavallee, vice president of policy and research for the WakeEd Partnership, a business-backed nonprofit group that advocates for public education. “One or two students are not the only students who deserve to get the accolades.”

Unlike Wake, the Durham school system plans to continue naming valedictorians and salutatorians after using Latin honors.

Among this year’s 29 Wake valedictorians, opinion about the change is mixed.

Lee, 17, the Heritage High valedictorian, noted how the school board had honored all the valedictorians at a meeting in May.

“The admiration and veneration that you showed to the 2016 valedictorians is utterly contradicted by your current decision to do away with this timeless tradition,” Lee said.

But William Song, valedictorian of Enloe High School in Raleigh, said the competition to be named valedictorian has led to a “very toxic environment” where students care more about boosting their GPA than what will help their education.

“It’s no longer about what I want to learn,” Song said in an interview. “It’s almost a rat race to take as many AP classes as possible. It’s a winner-take-all environment.”

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