Carroll changes the way it picks top grads

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By Shaina Stockton

HILLSVILLE — Beginning this fall, Carroll County Public Schools’ top graduates will be honored differently than in previous years.

Instead of choosing a class valedictorian and salutatorian, two students will be chosen from the Summa Cum Laude graduates by members of the senior class and members of the school’s faculty and staff to serve as graduation speakers, according to the student handbook.

Starting with the ninth grade class of 2011-2012, honor graduates that achieve Magna Cum Laude or Summa Cum Laude status will be recognized during high school graduation, in an effort to recognize more students for their academic accomplishments, the handbook said.

Magna Cum Laude status is awarded to students with a 3.8-3.9 grade point average (GPA). Summa Cum Laude status is awarded to students with a 4.0 or higher GPA.

The decision to change this policy was made by the Carroll County School Board in 2011, and will go into effect for the first time this year. To prepare for the change, the school board brought the policy into a discussion at its June 9 meeting.

School Board Chairman Brian Spencer told the board that some students didn’t like the change.

Board Member Reginald Gardner agreed, saying that it could be a problem because some colleges give scholarships to valedictorians and salutatorians.

Earning these titles are important for many students, but over the years, school systems have found that meeting the challenge could actually prove to be a hindrance from students making the best choices for their education.

“Often, the first or second [valedictorian and salutatorian] are determined by one one-thousandth of a point,” said Schools Superintendent Strader Blankenship. And in the past, this process has created some very hard feelings.

Some students will schedule classes based on nothing more than what will give them a better GPA, rather than classes that interest them, or will benefit their education. “Instead of taking a class they’re passionate about, they are taking classes with a heavier weight,” the superintendent said.

Other board members have seen this behavior in students, as well. “My daughter is heavily involved in the yearbook, but she considered not taking [the class] this year because it was not dual-credit. It would bring down her standing,” Spencer said.

The school board agreed to revisit the policy that was approved by the previous school board in 2011.

“We could honor anyone with a 4.0 GPA or higher,” Spencer suggested.

Strader noted that knowing who the top students are often comes down to the very last semester.

After the meeting, Blankenship told The Gazette that Carroll is not the only school district that has been studying this. “This is an issue across the state,” he said.

He addressed the concern about how this will effect college applicants. After some research, Carroll school officials have discovered that colleges are mainly concerned with three things: SAT scores, GPA and extracurricular activities.

While the valedictorian title may look impressive on an application, Blankenship is one of many who are concerned about how this has influenced education. He gave a local example of how the traditional method has actually discouraged students from learning something new. “We had two students — one was valedictorian, and the other a salutatorian. [The valedictorian] decided to take an elective, while the other decided not to.”

The valedictorian received an A in the class, but the class meant that more hours would be factored in to determine his GPA. “Because of this, the valedictorian became the salutatorian,” said Blankenship.

The board is still studying the new policy, so details about how the new top seniors will be chosen are not yet clear. “This will be the first year we do this… but we think that a lot more kids are going to be recognized for their accomplishments,” Blankenship said.