Nature Coast Technical High School senior Alyssa Cooper has always been a motivated student.
She's worked hard to achieve a 4.55 grade-point average. To pull in highest honors at the school. To obtain her associate's degree from Pasco-Hernando Community College.
One big factor keeping her motivated: the prospect of becoming valedictorian — earning her graduating class's top academic honor.
"It causes us to be even more driven than we already are," Cooper said. "And it gives us something to strive for."
She achieved her goal, becoming the Class of 2013's top student at Nature Coast. But she might be one of the last to earn that designation.
Without much discussion or public input last summer, and based on the recommendation of a committee doing a routine review of district policies, the Hernando County School Board voted to eliminate the valedictorian and salutatorian designations at district high schools beginning with the current freshman classes.
It's a decision that is now starting to generate backlash from some students, parents and community members.
"I don't think it's a good idea at all," said Cooper.
Cooper's mother, Michelle, agreed.
"We try, as parents, to teach our children to set high goals," she said. "If you do away with valedictorians and salutatorians, who is to say you're not taking these kids and deflating them?"
School Board members passed the new policy 5-0 during their July 31 meeting as part of the 87-page "2012-2013 High School Procedures Handbook." There was no discussion.
Printed in bold letters on Page 69 of the handbook, the new rule reads, "Note: Effective with the Class of 2016, (students entering ninth grade in 2012-13), the current designation for valedictorian and salutatorian for graduation will no longer be in effect."
Prior to the vote, no School Board member mentioned the new policy during the board's June 19 workshop, during which the board reviewed changes to a number of handbooks.
Board member Cynthia Moore said she doesn't support eliminating the distinction.
"I guess I didn't read it thoroughly," she said. "I think they ought to recognize them. Children work hard for that."
Board Chairman Matt Foreman shared Moore's opinion.
"I'm opposed to eliminating recognition of students who have worked so hard to be at the top of their class," Foreman said. "We should recognize those who have earned the designation."
Board member Dianne Bonfield said the first she heard about the change was a few weeks ago.
Superintendent Bryan Blavatt said the modifications eliminated the valedictorian and salutatorian designations in favor of a cum laude awards system, where a larger number of top students would be recognized.
While the issue has been voted on and approved, the School Board could revisit it this summer, Blavatt noted.
He said he did not realize when the vote was taken last year that valedictorians and salutatorians were being eliminated. He said last week he would favor acknowledging more students while continuing to recognize valedictorians and salutatorians.
Hernando County's principals are among the staunchest supporters of eliminating valedictorians and salutatorians.
Springstead High principal Susan Duval said the district's high school principals have discussed the change for years.
"We're trying to recognize more than just two students at graduation," Duval said. "By doing this, we provide the opportunity for a number of students to speak to the class and the audience at graduations."
Duval said that many other districts are moving away from having valedictorians and salutatorians.
"The valedictorian and salutatorian (designations) are kind of an antiquated system of recognition," she said.
School districts in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties all recognize valedictorians and salutatorians. The Citrus County School District does not.
Citrus decided to do away with the designations in 2000, adopting a plan whereby all students graduating with honors are recognized. Graduation speakers are chosen from among the top students.
Weeki Wachee High School principal Troy LaBarbara said prefers a system where more students who do well are recognized.
LaBarbara noted that colleges use the cum laude recognition system.
"I like it better because it does match what's going on in the post-secondary," he said.
LaBarbara said there are some negatives that come with the valedictorian and salutatorian honors.
"Some kids will take a course just to boost their (grade-point average)," he said. "That's not healthy."
Nature Coast parent Donna Sniffen hears those arguments, but opposes the change.
Sniffen, whose daughter just narrowly missed being named salutatorian this year at Nature Coast, said it is important to recognize the top two students and their hard work.
"Why take that away?" she asked. "All I see that they are doing here is lowering the standards."
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.