Tuesday, October 26, 2021

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School board members buck proposal to eliminate valedictorians and salutatorians

Alamance-Burlington school board members appeared skeptical about, and asked school officials to revise, a central office proposal to scrap the existing “top ten” graduating senior designation at ABSS high schools – complete with the top-ranked valedictorian and second-place salutatorian – in favor of a so-called “Latin honors system.”

Under the Latin system, students would be recognized under potentially one of three classifications: Cum Laude, Magna Cum Laude, and Summa Cum Laude, much like many colleges employ.

But when Revonda Johnson, director of secondary education for ABSS, unveiled the idea at the school board’s latest meeting, several school board members rejected it, criticizing the administration’s desire to avoid academic competition and individual accomplishment in favor of the broader classifications.

Johnson told school board members that all six high school principals are on board with moving to a Latin honors system because the change “would allow more students to be recognized for their efforts” and would reduce stress among students competing for top rank.

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Valedictorians and salutatorians are selected for each high school’s graduating class once grades for classes taken during the spring semester and final exam scores have been tabulated, under the existing class rank policy for ABSS.  Traditionally, the student with the highest weighted cumulative GPA is named valedictorian; and the student with the second-highest weighted GPA is named salutatorian for each high school’s graduating class.

Several nearby school systems that have moved to the Latin honors system, which she said mirrors the Cum Laude, Magna Cum Laude, and Summa Cum Laude academic honors awarded at the university level, Johnson told school board members during their latest meeting.  The public school systems in Guilford, Orange, Rockingham, and Wake counties have moved, or are moving, to the Latin honors system, she said.

 “The Latin system recognizes much broader spectrum of accomplishment,” Johnson explained, adding that the current system of recognizing the academic achievement of graduating seniors “only recognizes a small group” of students.  “One student’s success is another student’s failure,” she said. “In some cases, fractional differences in GPA determine class rank.”

Johnson and other ABSS administrators are proposing to implement the Latin honors system for the class of rising high school freshmen that will begin high school this August and would be scheduled to graduate in the spring of 2024.

Only students earning a 3.75 GPA or better would graduate with honors, based on a proposed revision to the school system’s class rank policy that Johnson presented to school board members during their latest meeting. 

Graduating seniors who earn a weighted GPA ranging from 3.75 to 3.99 would receive Cum Laude honors; those with a weighted GPA of 4.0 to 4.249 would receive Magna Cum Laude honors; and seniors with a weighted GPA of 4.25 or higher would receive Summa Cum Laude honors, under the proposed policy revision.   Johnson said the proposed revision to the ABSS class rank policy had been modeled on a similar policy that Wake County public schools implemented at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.

However, the formula used to determine each senior’s class rank would remain unchanged, and class rank would be listed on each student’s high school transcript, based on the proposed policy that Johnson presented to school board members. 

Each graduating class, through the class of 2023, would continue to name a valedictorian and a salutatorian, and the existing A-B Honor Roll system would remain in place, based on the proposed policy revision that Johnson presented to school board members. 

Johnson said many high school students don’t take “hands-on” classes, such as career and technical education courses, that interest them for fear of how it might affect their GPA – grades for Honors classes in English, math, or science count for more in calculating class rank – while stress leads others to drop out of high school altogether.   “We have had kids drop out who were in [Advanced Placement] classes because of the stress with that,” she told school board members during their latest meeting.  “There are students who excel who have chosen to leave us.”

Simpson: School board has more important issues to address

School board member Patsy Simpson said she thinks there are far more pressing issues the board should be focusing on, citing one school which she said had a “15 percent proficiency rate” in math.  “How is this a high priority?” Simpson asked.  “When I read [the proposed policy revision] I said, ‘Here we go, everybody’s got to get a trophy.’  

“When you’ve got one school that has an [International Baccalaureate, or IB] program, and you don’t have it in the other schools – those are the issues that I want to deal with,” Simpson continued.  “Those issues contribute to students not being able to have the 4.0 [GPA or better].  We can’t forget that every school doesn’t have the AP courses that will give you that kind of GPA. There are some other things that are of greater importance to me.  I would rather have a discussion about the specialty schools and the survey that’s going on right now.”

Simpson recently asked ABSS superintendent Dr. Bruce Benson to conduct a second survey to determine whether – and how many – ABSS parents would be willing to send their children to the specialty programs that are planned for Cummings and Graham High schools. 

The $150 million bond that voters approved for ABSS in 2018 included funding to convert Cummings High School from a comprehensive four-year high school to a specialty school for the arts, initially for students in grades six through nine.  Graham High School would be converted from a comprehensive high school to a skilled trades/pre-collegiate academy. Benson said during the school board’s latest meeting that the survey was scheduled to be sent to ABSS families last month.

Simpson also asked Johnson whether she and the high school principals had considered developing some kind of hybrid honors system, by which each graduating class would have a valedictorian and salutatorian, as well as award Latin honors to those seniors who merit them.

School board vice chairman Brian Feeley said the school system in Ann Arundel County, Maryland had recently adopted such a hybrid system that provides for naming a class valedictorian and salutatorian, in addition to awarding honors to eligible seniors.

“My understanding is that years ago this was discussed – that’s how it came up,” Johnson explained. 

“If you mix the two, you’re defeating some of my reasons for wanting to go with the Latin system.”  As for the five high schools that don’t have an IB program – which is currently offered solely at Williams High School – or have fewer AP classes, those students “are measured against their own schoolmates,” Johnson said.

The Latin honors system, Feeley said, mirrors what students will see if they go on to graduate from a college or university, though he suggested “perhaps you could find a more qualitative way” of selecting a valedictorian and salutatorian.  “If you match that academic performance with other criteria, perhaps the overall student, yet provide a pathway, an exemplar, perhaps there is room to meet many of the objectives you’re trying to get to,” Feeley told Johnson.

School board member Steve Van Pelt, who is a retired ABSS principal, recalled from his tenure as a high school administrator, and as a parent, that the competition to be ranked at the top of one’s graduating class “can be really ugly and nasty at times.”

But, Van Pelt said, “We need to find a way to be more inclusive and recognize students who have gone beyond the call of duty – this, to me, is important.”

‘They work their tails off’

“I’m real happy for them,” school board member Pam Thompson said, referring to Wake County public schools and other school systems that have adopted the Latin honors system, adding, “but we are Alamance County.  It’s like we are so afraid to allow children or adults to be competitive.  When you grow up, you have to compete for jobs, for everything.  I always want to support and encourage people, but I do not agree with taking away [valedictorians and salutatorians]; they work their tails off.  Kids and adults have to learn how to win or lose – it’s character-building.  You can’t hide in the closet and get your feelings hurt because you were not” the top student.

Benson acknowledged that ABSS has work to do in terms of providing rigorous coursework at all six high schools but reminded school board members of the inherent difficulty in selecting a valedictorian and salutatorian for each graduating class.

“We are taking a letter grade and assigning a number that has one or two significant digits and turning it into a number that has four significant digits,” Benson said.  “We are talking about our kids differing – in some cases – [by] a hundredths to a thousandth of a point.”

Johnson has agreed, in the meantime, to continue refining the class rank policy to reflect the concerns that school board members have raised and to present it to the board again this spring.

Other business

In other business, school board members voted unanimously during their latest meeting to reelect school board chairman Allison Gant to a third, one-year term as chairman and Feeley to a third, one-year term as vice chairman.

School board members also voted unanimously to approve an average increase of 90 cents per hour in the pay rates for bus drivers.  ABSS finance director Jeremy Teetor told school board members that increasing the current pay scales would make it easier to recruit and retain bus drivers and to address an ongoing shortage of drivers. 

Previously, drivers on the lowest step on the pay scale (step 0) earned $12.75 per hour; with the increase that school board members approved, drivers at the lowest step on the pay scale will earn $13.65 per hour.

Bus drivers at the highest step on the pay scale (step 35) previously earned $17.59 per hour; with the approved increase, drivers at the highest step will earn $18.49 per hour, based on figures that Teetor presented during the school board’s latest meeting.

The total cost to increase the hourly pay for bus drivers is estimated at $128,000, based on figures that Teetor presented.  Most of the cost will be covered by state funds that have been allotted to ABSS for the current fiscal year, while $7,000 of the total estimated cost will come from county current expense funding within the school system’s budget, he said.

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