Huntsville City Schools will no longer designate valedictorian and salutatorian

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Some high achieving students are trying to amend the Huntsville City Schools honor graduates policy, recently revised by the Huntsville City Schools Board of Education, because they say it lets down the district's top performers.

Ella Burch, a senior at Huntsville High School, said she has been working for years to be her school's valedictorian this year.

"I was first in my class sophomore and junior year and this year I am taking 8 AP classes so mathematically," she commented, "I'm supposed to make valedictorian if I were to make all A's this year, which I hopefully will."

But due to the recent policy change, the district will no longer designated valedictorians, salutatorians, or the top 10 or 20 students in a graduating class. Instead, it has expanded the honor graduate distinction in categories: summa cum laude is bestowed upon seniors who earn a 4.0 or higher grade point average, and magna cum laude to seniors who have a 3.8 to 3.9999.

For Burch, who heard this news from her guidance counselor, this was a tough blow.

"It was definitely a feeling of defeat," she stated.

Board members said the policy, changed after input from principals, does more to honor students who have the best of the best grades, and have achieved great things during their high school careers.

Keith Ward, Director of Communications for the district, said via email, "High school principals worked together to come up with revisions to the honors policy in order to have consistency across the school district along with them having the ability to recognize all students who earn an overall GPA of 3.8 or more. These changes can remove some of the stress from students who take weighted classes to keep their GPA above a 4.0.  This, in turn, can serve as a catalyst for students to take elective classes they might prefer and enjoy thereby creating a more well-rounded educational experience.  The recommendations were also reviewed by the HCS policy committee before being presented to the board of education."

Leigh Ann Brown, the district's Guidance Coordinator, said for her this is all about not just making things more equitable, but giving students freedom to take the classes that enrich their lives, not just the ones that boost their GPA's.

"Hopefully, this will encourage students to take the course they really want to take. Not just taking AP courses because it's helping their GPA but the ones they really want, and some of those are elective courses," she said. "Oftentimes, they are foregoing electives that would probably be beneficial to them down the road."

She argued that more "progressive" high schools are already doing this.

"Going to a non-ranking system has become the more progressive way in the country. The more progressive high schools seem to be going to this. We are a little late to this party," she said. "But colleges know this and any college will typically ask counselors, do you rank students and if not can you give us a decile that the students would fall into? And we can always provide that. It's not going to affect their scholarships."

Board members also shared letters of support from parents who support the decision and argue the raking system is counterproductive.

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But Ella Burch is bothered enough about the change, to take action herself. She appeared at Thursday's board meeting to make a plea to the board to change the policy and instead, make it transitionally effective. She said she believes students who achieve high GPA's deserve recognition, and she does not disagree with adding the Latin honors. But she also doesn't want herself, or her fellow students who have also been working hard, to have to give up on their dreams.

"My goal is to have it implemented for current freshmen. It will be implemented on a rolling basis so that current seniors who have been pursuing this goal and current juniors who are also affected will have the opportunity to achieve the goals they had hoped to," she told WHNT News 19. She proposed the idea at Thursday's board meeting, asking that for the next few years both valedictorian and salutatorian honors can remain, along with the summa and magna cum laude honors.

"The current seniors and juniors are disproportionately affected because we have not had the opportunity to pick our classes based on other-than-GPA kind of qualifications if we were hoping to receive these awards," she told the board. "I've been a member fo this community for most of my life... I do know this board is with good intention. And I know this is inconsistent with my experience, because I have come here for multiple recognitions and I believe individual recognition is important to this school board."

Burch wants to work with other students to fight for the chance to get the honor.

"I want to build a coalition of other affected students to push forward in a movement. Meeting during school board meetings, adding on to the agenda as often as possible, to make it clear to the school board that they are letting down their top kids," she explained.

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