Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Opinion

Bowen: Persevering to be honored at the top of the class

It is a long, impressive resume for Dr. Robin Conwit.

She graduated magna cum laude from Colgate University and then medical school at the State University of New York at Buffalo. She completed a residency in neurology at George Washington University and a fellowship at the National Institute of Health. She's been a principal investigator on clinical trials for ALS studies (Lou Geherig's Disease), a faculty member at Johns Hopkins and currently is at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland.

There is one more accomplishment worth noting. Thirty-seven years ago, she was salutatorian of her high school class of 300 students in Olean, N.Y. I was one of her classmates and I recently asked her about the significance of being named salutatorian.

"For me, the salutatorian designation was very important,'' she said. "I wasn't an athlete, and this gave me a purpose." It taught her to persevere, she said, a skill she relied upon to become a physician and to complete years of medical training.

And the idea that some school board might eliminate the valedictorian and salutatorian recognition?

"It's disappointing because, personally, it was such a great thing and I think it might take away the incentive for some.''

The Pasco School Board heard similar sentiments last week courtesy of a letter read by Rick Penberthy from his daughter, Corttney, valedictorian of Wesley Chapel High School in 2007. Valedictorian and salutatorian aren't simple labels, but rather ambitions and are sources of pride, the letter said.

Didn't matter. On a 4-0 vote, the board advanced a proposal from Superintendent Kurt Browning to do away with naming high school valedictorians and salutatorians beginning with the incoming freshman class and to replace the academic recognitions at commencement with the honors designations of cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude.

It's an odd policy considering each school will still rank graduates according to their grade-point averages, but withhold the valedictorian and salutatorian labels. What hasn't been fully acknowledged, however, is the district already has the honors designations Browning is advocating. Here is what is listed on pages 82-83 of the current student progression plan:

"Graduating standard diploma students will receive Cum Laude status and recognition, as determined by the weighted class rank GPA.'' Cum Laude begins at 3.2; Magna Cum Laude begins at 3.8 and Summa Cum Laude begins at 4.2.

It also states: "Cum Laude students will be recognized upon graduation. The following methods may be used: cords, medallions, diploma seals, highlighting the names in the program, and/or permitting representative Summa Cum Laude candidates to deliver speeches.''

In other words, unless somebody asks why you're wearing the colored cord over your graduation gown, nobody in the commencement audience will know your scholarly attributes. Some recognition.

Browning also is mistaken if he believes this will end the annual consternation of wading through grades earned in Advanced Placement, dual enrollment, on-line, IB, and honors classes to figure out who is tops in the class. Disgruntled parents won't be disappearing, either. Consider a case in Citrus County, where the School Board eliminated its valedictorian and salutatorian designations in 2000. Four years later, parents of a Lecanto High School senior appealed to the School Board to reverse the decision and have their son named valedictorian after he compiled a 4.96 weighted GPA and scored a perfect 1600 on the SAT exam. Ironically, the appeal came during the same meeting board members recognized Lecanto High's state champion boys soccer team.

"I am not antisports," one sympathetic board member said at the time, "but we put on a pedestal anybody who can dribble, kick or hit a ball."

Indeed. And, not just athletes.

Each year, the Pasco Education Foundation puts on a gala to honor the top employees from the School District. It's a big event, attended by 700 people, and it honors 175 administrators, teachers, school related personnel (SRPs) and the noninstructional nonbargaining employees like school plant managers. The evening culminates with the recognition of the top employee district wide in each of the four categories.

It means that as many as 76 educators from individual schools, each selected teacher of the year by their peers, are in competition to be the top teacher in the district. Instead of picking one winner, why not just give them all a ribbon and send them home?

Or better yet, how come each high school can have a teacher and SRP of the year, but not a valedictorian and salutatorian?

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