Walking at Western commencement

Our view: Acceptance to college the wrong requirement for participation

May 17, 2011

Baltimore school officials were wise to suspend the rule stating that only Western High School students accepted at four-year colleges could participate in this year's graduation ceremonies. Given that some Western students' college application efforts were botched by the school's failure to send transcripts and other materials to admissions offices, they could hardly have done otherwise. But the policy needs to be shelved for good.

It is predicated on the one-size-fits-all notion that a four-year college education is the right path for every student. That is not the case even for the historically high-achieving graduates of this award-winning public school. There are a thousand paths to success, not all of them require a four-year stop at college.

For some graduates attending a two-year community college is the smartest choice. Gaetana Vitale, a senior at Western, plans to study pre-veterinarian science at Anne Arundel Community College. When she learned that this choice did not quality her to walk across the stage at graduation, she made a hurried effort to get an acceptance letter from Coppin State University, a tactic she described to The Sun's Erica L. Green as a "last ditch effort." She was furthering her education, yet she needed a letter of acceptance from a four year college she was not going to attend to participate in her high school commencement ceremonies.

This is silly. It is not as if Ms. Vitale was planning on a career of menial labor after graduation. She planned to enter a profession that would do the school proud, as would any number of other options for graduates that don't involve heading straight to college. Alumnae might enter the military, travel or volunteer and apply to college later, if at all. Others might plan to spend two years in community college to save money en route to an eventual four-year degree.

It is true that the knowledge economy of the 21st century will increasingly require more than a high school diploma for success, but many good-paying jobs will require specialized training and not necessarily a bachelor's degree.

School officials say their tradition was an incentive for students to set high expectations. While it was a long-standing requirement at Western, it is not followed at the city's other college preparatory schools. It should be discarded. Moreover it comes on the heels of several other controversies at Western, including the scandal over the mishandled college application paperwork and the cancelation of the senior banquet because of pranks. The school needs to right itself.

This week the commencement speaker at another high school, President Barack Obama, told the students of Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis: "Your diploma is not a free pass. It won't protect you against every setback or challenge or mistake." What he meant was that although their graduation from high school was a great accomplishment, what those students do with the knowledge and skills they acquired is much more important than the pieces of paper they were being handed that day.

Likewise, the measure of success for the bright minds of Western isn't another piece of paper, a letter of acceptance from an institution that they may never attend. It is the will to achieve that will matter, and that is the only qualification the graduates should need to walk across the stage and receive their diplomas.

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