Sharing top of the class honors

School board asked to replace valedictorian designations with a cum laude system

May 27, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,SUN REPORTER

Severna Park junior Victoria Vidal missed her chance of becoming valedictorian when she decided to take a sociology class.

Sociology is "a general," an increasingly derogatory term for electives that have no added value when calculating grade-point averages. Vidal's A in that class was worth only four points, versus the five she could have earned in an Advanced Placement course, or the 4.5 in an honors class.

Vidal said the race for valedictorian or salutatorian is "a numbers game" to squeeze in as many high-point classes as possible within the six-hour, 40-minute school day.

The honors student has revived the effort in Anne Arundel County to use a cum laude system that would recognize the top 1 percent to 5 percent of a class, instead of rewarding just the top two students, and has quickly garnered support from at least two school board members.

School board vice president Eugene Peterson said last week that he likes her idea, but a fusion that would keep the valedictorian and salutatorian titles while adopting a system to honor top-tier graduates is more likely to pass.

"I think we need a change," Peterson said. "Valedictorians tend to create more intensive competition. I was sitting with a group of students who were saying that the top two students in their school weren't even friends anymore. We shouldn't foster an environment like that."

Sage Snider, who will join the board in July as the student member, with full voting rights, said the cum laude system will be among the first issues she champions.

"[The valedictorian system] makes everyone feel pressured to take all these AP classes," said the Severna Park junior, whose older sister Pallas was an ardent supporter of the issue when serving on the board in 2005-2006. "The valedictorian is just the student who gets to make a speech. When the top students are separated by one-thousandth of a point, the valedictorian is not necessarily the person who worked the hardest."

This all came up seven years ago in an emotional controversy at Severna Park, when the senior who'd been named valedictorian was dropped one spot when the final rankings showed his GPA was 0.0113 below a classmate's. Bumped down to salutatorian, the student's parents appealed to the principal and school board to no avail. However, the issue revealed the lack of a policy on how to calculate class standings.

Former superintendent Eric J. Smith formed a committee in spring 2005 to scrap the traditional system of valedictorians and salutatorians and replace it with the cum laude designation commonly used by colleges and universities.

That work foundered just six months later, when Smith abruptly left in November. The proposed system then died in February 2006, despite efforts by Pallas Snider to keep it alive.

If the cum laude proposal makes headway in Anne Arundel County, it wouldn't be the first time a school system in Maryland opted for a system that provides top graduates broader recognition. In recent years, Howard, Montgomery and Wicomico counties stopped singling out valedictorians in favor of commencement rituals that recognize more students.

Some Baltimore County high schools began broadening academic acknowledgments - honoring students in the top 5 percent of their classes - after former Baltimore Colt Stan White sued the district in 1993 to force Dulaney High School to name his daughter co-valedictorian with another student who had edged her out. A Baltimore County Circuit Court judge later dismissed the lawsuit. And last summer, Eldersburg's Liberty High became the last high school in Carroll County to publicly recognize its top student.

At a forum last week with student government leaders, Vidal, 16, told her peers in other high schools that a cum laude system would lessen the "unhealthy competition" in high schools that sometimes forces students to take college-level classes for which they're not prepared. She also said the traditional valedictorian system forces students to bypass classes "that could make them well-rounded."

"Some of the most interesting courses I took were sociology and Social Issues of the 21st Century," she told a group of students. "Severna Park [High] is such a competitive place there are lots of students who skip those courses, because it doesn't help their GPA."

Southern High School junior Sydney Henschel, 17, disagrees.

"If you've worked so hard to become No. 1, then you should get some special recognition," she said.

North County High senior Erin Dayhaw, 17, said she knows classmates who have plotted their rise to valedictorian since middle school.

"If you've worked at something so hard since sixth or seventh grade, then it's only fair that you should be recognized for it," she said.

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

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