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Monday, April 15, 2024

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by Simon Gonzalez

Beginning with the 2018-19 school year, the Wake County school system is taking the commendable step of honoring academic high achievers.

The school board is implementing the Latin honors system used by colleges and universities. Seniors with a weighted grade-point average of 4.25 and above will graduate summa cum laude. Those with a GPA of 4.0-4.24 will be honored as magna cum laude. Students between 3.75 and 3.99 will be designated cum laude.

Good job. Students deserved to be recognized for success in the classroom.

Unfortunately, the move is accompanied by something not-so-commendable. At the same time it is implementing the Latin honors system, the board is doing away with valedictorians and salutatorians.

Apparently, vying for the top two spots in their graduating class was a problem.

“We have heard from many, many schools that the competition has become very unhealthy,” school board chairman Tom Benton told the Raleigh News & Observer. “Students were not collaborating with each other the way that we would like them to. Their choice of courses was being guided by their GPA and not their future education plans. … We think it’s much healthier to set high expectations and high requirements for magna cum laude. The students now have a target that they can shoot for and if they achieve that they’re recognized for that.”

Benton is right to want to recognize more of the high achievers, and to give them a target to shoot for. Incidentally, new changes to the state grading system that went into effect this school year make that target a little more difficult than it might seem. An A in advanced placement and international baccalaureate courses is now worth five quality points, not six. Honors courses are worth four and one-half points instead of five.

But he and the board are wrong to do away with the valedictorian and salutatorian distinctions.

Competition in the classroom should be encouraged, not discouraged. It’s OK to want to be the best of the best.

We don’t have a problem with it in the athletic arena. Players compete for a spot on the team. The most talented earn jobs as starters. The standouts earn recognition on all-district teams, with breakdowns for first-team, second-team and honorable mention. The cream of the crop are given such accolades as offensive player of the year, defensive player of the year and most valuable player.

It’s absolutely true that society puts entirely too much value on athletics. Municipalities in Texas are spending obscene amounts on football stadiums — like $62.8 million for a 12,000-seat stadium in McKinney, which was approved by 63 percent of the voters. That’s just a little more than the $62.5 million that Katy voters approved for their 12,000-seater for the Friday night heroes.

The emphasis on sports, the hopes of stardom and scholarships, the deference for those with athletic ability, is arguably unhealthy in the extreme. But no one seems to mind. So what’s the problem with a little competition for academic honors?

The fear is that this will become yet another step along the road toward participation trophies for all, where no one is allowed to stand out lest it hurt someone’s feelings.

Let’s hope that’s not the case.

We should be encouraging hopes and dreams, and telling our children they should aim high. At the same time, it’s OK to learn the lesson that there’s always somebody better than you are. Maybe not in elementary school, but certainly by the time they get to high school.

Who knows? Maybe that will motivate them to work harder, to challenge themselves to a little healthy competition.

Other school districts would do well to emulate Wake County in adopting the Latin honors system, and recognize more students for their academic achievements. But please don’t emulate them in doing away with the valedictorians and salutatorians.

Striving to be the best of the best really isn’t such a bad thing.

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