Pensacola News Journal | By Madison Arnold | June 14, 2021
Escambia County School District high schools will continue to name valedictorians and salutatorians after the superintendent pulled proposed changes to the graduationhonors system from school board consideration.
District staff suggested changing the system because of the pressures they say are placed on students who compete for the honor. Instead, they proposed using Latin honors for recognition during graduation — cum laude for students in the top 20%, magna cum laude for students in the top 10% and summa cum laude for students in the top 5%.
School board members first discussed the change during a workshop meeting Monday. Three of the members were not in favor of the change after they said they had heard from many constituents who don’t want to lose the tradition.
“We’ve had over 400 constituents who sent messages and not a single one wants it to stop,” school board member Paul Fetsko said. “I called a valedictorian that I know real well and said, ‘What do you think? How was the pressure? What went on?’ … His comment was that the competition helps people to keep a focus on what they want to do and what’s important. And if there’s something else that’s more important, then you make decisions. That’s what goes on in life.”
Because members and the community didn’t seem receptive of the change, Superintendent Tim Smith decided to pull the item from the school board meeting agenda for Tuesday.
Had the measure gotten on the agenda and passed, it would have gone into effect starting with the incoming ninth-graders in the fall.
“It just wasn’t the right time for us,” Smith told the News Journal after the meeting. “We’ve just finished with high school graduation. And there’s more of a conversation that needs to be had because you’re talking about a lot of tradition and a lot of past practice.”
He added that the issue will be an ongoing conversation for the board in the future.
No members of the public spoke on the topic Monday. A formal vote on the issue originally wasn’t scheduled until the board’s 5:30 p.m. meeting Tuesday at the Hall Center at 30 E. Texar Drive.
Valedictorians and salutatorians are the top two students in each high school class. They earn those titles through a point system for their GPA in classes taken from grades nine though 12. Some classes are weighted so students can earn a higher GPA by doing well in those that have designations, such as advanced placement or honors.
“Working with the schools, I’m very concerned about how much pressure is on the student and how it can affect the student’s well-being,” said Lesa Morgan, director of high schools, during the meeting. “It’s not to say that it’s not special. It is very special. But you have to know everything that’s behind the scenes that happens. For those that don’t make it to the top and they’re one hundredth of a point or one thousandth (away), it can be devastating.”
Critics say that the current system also can keep students out of fine arts classes such as band. The first two or three years of those classes are not weighted so students who are competing for valedictorian might choose other classes that have more weighted options.
“That’s different compared to a student who is taking honors English, an honors math class, an honors science class. They’re doing that their freshman year,” Smith said. “So that’s where some kids may shy away from taking a particular course that isn’t weighted. A lot of times that might be in the elective arena.”
Board member Patty Hightower was the only one in favor of the shift away from valedictorians. Board member Laura Edler wasn’t in attendance Monday.
Hightower said she believes colleges now look at the rigor of a student’s coursework, GPA and well roundedness when considering them for admission, not only their class rank. She said it also bothers her when students earn a 4.0 GPA but do not get to graduate at the front of the class like valedictorians.
“I see that this is not the time to do this. I don’t want to have the community in an uproar over that. What I would like to see us do is have conversations with students about this process,” Hightower said.
Image: Escambia High School celebrates its 2021 graduates during the school’s commencement ceremony on Friday, June 4, 2021, at the Pensacola Bay Center. Jody Link/pnj