LAND O'LAKES — The longstanding tradition of students fighting it out to be first or second in their high school graduating class could soon become history in Pasco County.
Superintendent Kurt Browning has recommended eliminating the honoring of valedictorians and salutatorians beginning with next year's freshman class. Instead, top-performing students would be honored in groups under the Latin designations of cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude.
At a School Board workshop Tuesday, Browning said the "val" and "sal" concept is outdated and "problematic." Board members did not object, and most on the five-member panel expressed support. A formal vote must be taken for the change to be made.
"I can make some pretty valid strong arguments why we need to phase out vals and sals," Browning said. "The difference between valedictorian and salutatorian is hundredths of a point."
A similar decision to eliminate the tradition in Hernando County last year prompted such a huge backlash that board members rescinded the policy.
Hillsborough and Pinellas also have valedictorians and salutatorians. Neither is considering a change.
In Pasco, the topic first came up a year ago when board members approved changes to the grading system that determines val and sals. Under that policy, which takes effect with freshmen entering in 2014, the district will use all courses that generate high school credit toward graduation — including those taken online, or in middle school — to calculate class rank grade-point average. The measure drew criticism that students might cheat in online courses. Board member Alison Crumbley also expressed concern that students who rarely visit campus could become the most honored graduate. Browning said then that the tradition should be re-examined.
Administrators said the new policy would make high school graduations more like college, where top graduates are designated by Latin terms signifying achievement levels.
Doing that, they argued, would reward more students. It also would eliminate problems posed by options such as virtual school and dual enrollment, which give grades on different schedules than traditional high schools.
Browning mentioned a student whose guidance counselor told her she would be salutatorian. But a virtual course she took awards grades past the deadline for final grade-point averages so it wasn't included in the calculations. "She ended up third," he said.
Browning admitted the issue is emotionally charged, so he wanted board members to weigh in early.
Most Pasco board members said they were okay with ending the practice.
"This is going to be like the buggy whip," board member Joanne Hurley said. "It's going to be obsolete."
Board member Steve Luikart, a former principal, said he has seen students "move from school to school" so they could have the highest GPA.
Browning said competition is so cutthroat, that at one meeting with parents "it felt like I was being deposed."
Bianca Gallina, 18, the 2014 salutatorian of Fivay High School, said she supports getting rid of the titles.
"They don't always take into account extracurricular activities or advanced placement classes," she said. "(For example), a student who takes all regular classes and has a 4.0 can place higher than students who take honors classes."
Gallina said in addition to her AP classes, she had a job and played soccer.
"It only looks at GPA," she said. "I think that's why it's not fair to everyone."
Trent Crawford, salutatorian of Anclote High, took the opposite view.
"It feels good to be recognized for a long four years of hard work," he said. "I don't think getting rid of it would be a good idea."
As for deciding who would give graduation speeches if vals and sals go away, Browning said he would leave that up to the schools.
"I'm not going to micromanage that," he said.
Times staff writer Jon Silman contributed to this report.