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As more students enroll in classes that award extra-high and college credits, some high schools find themselves naming multiple valedictorians.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times Photo taken May 16, 2012 High schools are graduating a number of valedictorians.
Monday, May 21, 2012
For nearly 30 years, local high school valedictorians were treated to a buffet-style feast, courtesy of the Roanoke Elks Lodge No. 197.
Every year, about 100 academic overachievers and family members dined on spaghetti, chicken, salad, rolls and dessert during the lodge’s annual Valedictorian Night. Then, over the years, the guest list started growing.
A new phenomenon swept the Roanoke Valley in the 1990s and 2000s: High schools started naming multiple valedictorians. And I don’t mean just one or two. Scores of valedictorians were honored — at each school.
“It kept going up, up, up,” said Dave Ross, a longtime lodge member who has helped plan more than 20 valedictorian events at the club.
“One year, there were so many, we had to bring tables and chairs up from downstairs. If the fire marshal had stopped by, he would have cited us. That’s why we don’t do dinner anymore.”
The Elks Lodge still honors valedictorians — Valedictorian Night was last Thursday — but now the students have to settle for more affordable “heavy hors d’oeuvres,” Ross said. “Chicken fingers, chips, salsa, things like that.”
The dinner tradition became a casualty to modern times — and Advanced Placement courses (more about that later).
If you or your kids have been out of high school for the past two decades, this fun fact may shock you: Hidden Valley High School in southwest Roanoke County had 57 valedictorians last year.
Fifty-seven! That’s not a typo.
The school was still finalizing this year’s total last week, but the number will be in the same ballpark, if not higher, said Principal Rhonda Stegall.
Hidden Valley’s number is probably the high-water mark in the area, but other county high schools swell with valedictorians. Cave Spring and Northside usually have more than 20.
The sunny optimists will read those numbers and think: “Boy, there sure are a lot of smart kids out there!” The crotchety cynics will say: “Grade inflation! Pushy parents! This is everybody-gets-a-trophy philosophy run amok!”
First, a little background on how we got here.
The term valedictorian actually comes from valediction, which means “the act of bidding or saying farewell,” according to an ancient New World Dictionary I still have on my desk. Generally, the smartest kid in class got to give the valedictory address at graduation, thus, he or she was called the valedictorian.
Back in the old days when I was in school and dinosaurs roamed the Earth, the top student in the class was the kid with the highest grade-point average based on a 4.0 or 100-point scale (my high school used the 100-point scale). If Betsy Bookworm had a 99.9 average and Eddie Egghead had 99.8, Betsy was the valedictorian and Eddie was the salutatorian. Should’ve studied harder, Eddie!
Then, smart kids started enrolling in Governor’s School classes, which awarded extra credit. Suddenly, a student could get marks above the previous top score.
If an A was a 4.0 at your high school, it might be a 5.0 at Governor’s School. Students began racking up GPAs above 4.0 — which seemed unfair to the kid who didn’t go to Governor’s School but had made straight A’s at the regular high school.
So, some school systems, Roanoke County among them, initiated policies that stated that any student with a 4.0 or above would be considered a valedictorian. That seemed to work well, because only a handful of kids were racking up those scores.
Then came the phenomenon of Advanced Placement courses. Students could enroll in classes that awarded not only extra-high credits, but college credits, too. As more students began taking these classes, the number of students with 4.0 GPAs increased.
Which is how you get 57 valedictorians. They all have a 4.0 GPA or better.
No perfect solution
Fran Kiker , the coordinator of school counseling services for Roanoke County Public Schools, agreed that the high number of valedictorians surprises old-timers.
She and other school staffers “have philosophical discussions about it all the time,” said Kiker, who explained the evolution of weighted classes and numerous valedictorians for me.
“It’s very, very stressful for a student to be the number one. We don’t want to put kids in that position. I don’t know the perfect answer. Maybe you could call them something else, like ‘honors graduates.’ ”
Some school systems have done that. Franklin County and Salem, for example, did away with the valedictorian and salutatorian titles years ago. They still recognize high-ranking graduates with titles such as “distinguished scholars.” Salem’s 4.0 grads also get a $500 check from the school board.
Other school systems, however, have stuck with the traditional “one valedictorian” system. Roanoke city schools, Montgomery and Botetourt counties still operate that way. Even after all the weighted grades, the student with the highest GPA earns the honor.
Julie Drewry, Roanoke’s director of instruction for grades 6-12, said the school system has refrained from multiple valedictorians because “it takes away from the specialness of being the valedictorian.”
Stegall, a longtime Roanoke Valley school administrator, has seen the valedictorian debate from both sides. As an assistant principal in the city schools system at Patrick Henry, “you saw parents who had arranged their child’s four-year career to get the numbers to get valedictorian.”
The consequence was that some students skipped classes that weren’t weighted with extra credit — such as band, arts or vocational classes.
“They avoided things that they would have liked and would have made their high school experience more enjoyable,” Stegall said.
As for the high number of valedictorians at her school, Stegall said, “I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing, just different.”
I asked the William Byrd grad if she was valedictorian of her class. “Absolutely not,” she said.
A mere status symbol
I could joke that if my high school had 57 valedictorians when I graduated, even I would have had a chance to be a valedictorian!
Then I spoke to Harsh Patolia, one of this year’s Hidden Valley valedictorians, and realized that I probably still didn’t have a chance.
Patolia, 18, has a 4.4 GPA. He has taken Advanced Placement classes in English, Spanish, wind ensemble, government and has studied linear algebra and robotics in Governor’s School. I don’t think linear algebra even existed when I was in high school! And the only place I ever saw a robot was on “The Jetsons.” He plans to attend Wake Forest and study physics or computer science — or both.
He likes being part of a group of smart kids.
“I prefer the Roanoke County way,” he said. “You meet the criteria, you’re a valedictorian. I didn’t choose my classes to be valedictorian, that wasn’t my angle. I wanted to satisfy the college admissions requirements of whatever institution I decided to go to.
“Most of the people in my grade don’t care [about there being a slew of valedictorians]. I guess if you wanted that status for yourself, you’d feel like you’re losing something. It’s just a name. Nothing more.”
Patolia might have to settle for chips and salsa from the Elks Club, but it sounds like he — and the rest of his fellow valedictorians — have greater rewards awaiting them.
Ralph Berrier Jr.’s column runs every other Monday in Extra.
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