School board considers changing valedictorian, salutatorian program, moving graduation day

A plan that could set aside the traditional valedictorian/salutatorian program and change the commencement day at Huntington North High School is up for consideration.

HNHS Principal Russ Degitz introduced the proposal to the Huntington County Community School Corporation Board of School Trustees on Monday, Sept. 25.

Degitz said a Viking Distinguished Graduate Program would promote the “idea of excellence in competition” and allow more top students to achieve a “distinguished” status upon graduation.

It would also allow those top students to focus on a more well-rounded high school education, he said, rather than take classes only to achieve the coveted valedictorian spot as their goal.

Haley Burnau, president of the HNHS chapter of the National Honor Society, says switching to the new program would give additional students the opportunity to shine on graduation day.

“I think it’s a good idea, because I think that more people should be recognized for their hard work instead of, like, just those two,” Burnau says. “There are other students who work extremely hard, so I think it’s also good for them to get recognized as well.”

Degitz said Carmel, Homestead, Logansport and Indianapolis’ Pike high schools have transitioned to distinguished graduate programs and retired their valedictorian/salutatorian programs.

“It does certainly provide an opportunity for student recognition,” Degitz said. “About 10 percent of our senior class is potentially designated through this.”

Under the program, the top 3 percent of the senior class would be recognized as “distinguished;” those in the next 7 percent would receive “commended” honors. Students who qualify will be on an academic honors diploma track.

“We hope it minimizes the ‘GPA game,’” Degitz added. “We have a lot of students that kind of jockey for position, and even if it’s not the right fit for them, taking an advanced placement class to get a weighted grade.”

As an example, he said the parent of an eighth grade student planning his freshman class schedule recently asked the guidance counselor if they were signing up for classes that would make their son be valedictorian. That student had not taken any high school classes at that point.

“Granted, I fully commend the parent and the student for having that goal, but I think sometimes we place a higher priority on that than some of the experiences and opportunities that can be had over the next four years in the interim,” he said.

Degitz proposed starting the Distinguished Graduate program with the Class of 2022, whose members are now eighth graders. The program would be introduced to them as they schedule their high school classes in the upcoming winter months.

“We do feel like this really does preserve recognition for our top students,” Degitz said. “It may not be our top two — a valedictorian and salutatorian — but will be the top 10 percent.”

Burnau says that those students who are close to earning the highest GPA will try to take the classes that will get them nominated for valedictorian, but it should also be a requirement for other top students to take the challenging classes as well.

“They are a lot of work, so those people should be in the running for that,” she adds. “I think it will be just as difficult. If they have the 3 percent and 7 percent (honor designations) people are still going to want to be a part of that. So they’re still going to work hard to reach that goal, too.”

The valedictorian/salutatorian program is based solely on grade point average (GPA), while the Distinguished Graduate program is comprised of several components, including GPA, test scores, extracurricular activities, leadership and service.

Degitz said many students who are only reaching for valedictorian status forgo extracurricular activities and opportunities for community service, two components colleges look at when reviewing an application for admission.

“When you look at scholarship applications today, they want to know what you’re going into,” he added.

Universities that communicate with HNHS have told Degitz that a business major is the No. 1 major for students entering post-secondary education. But, he said, many students will graduate from HNHS knowing they will be business majors in college, but not have taken a single business class — opting instead to take weightier classes that increase their GPA.

Board member Reed Christiansen asked if replacing the “GPA game” would be replaced by the “busy game,” as students try to cram in extracurricular and service activities in addition to their studies.

“I think this is a struggle that some students have right now, with activities,” he said. “Does that replace it with that, is my concern.”

Superintendent Randy Harris said universities are looking to give scholarship money to students with a more well-rounded application.

“Do they play sports? Do they participate in extracurricular activities? Do they volunteer at the local food pantry or the hospital?” he asked. “I think the students are already playing the ‘busy game,’ if that’s what we want to call it, to build up that resume that assists them to get to where they want to go — not being a valedictorian or salutatorian.”

Degitz said there is a large amount of support for the program from the high school staff, with 50 percent saying the Distinguished Graduate program should replace the valedictorian/salutatorian program, and 50 percent saying it should be supplemental and a valedictorian and salutatorian should still be recognized.

Degitz also proposed a possible change to the high school’s commencement day. He outlined some alternative days to the traditional Friday evening exercise, which he said poses problems for some parents who work and some students who must choose between representing their school and receiving their diploma.

“I saw a lot of parents struggle to get off their jobs by 7 o’clock, so getting things taken care of, then getting to the school, which – no parking, no seat in the house, and be there by 7 o’clock to enjoy their child’s once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said. “I can’t help but wonder if we can make that more enjoyable.”

A more pressing issue, he said, is that students participating in year-end sports competitions are forced to decide between the event and attending their graduation ceremony. The state track meet and softball tournaments have typically been held at the same time as HNHS’ commencement. It’s a decision Degitz said students should not have to make.

“I struggle to have our kids choose that,” he added. “Imagine yourself having to ask, ‘Do I go to my graduation ceremony that I’ve worked hard for, for 13 years, or do I go and participate in a state level track meet to represent our school?’”

Degitz said administrators of other schools have told him they have moved to a Sunday late afternoon commencement, which he said could be an option.

“I’m exploring that a little further and would have you entertain that,” he told the board. “I will tell you first and foremost, as a man of faith, that I want to make sure that that day stays absolutely paramount to how we honor and respect that.”

The board took no action on either topic at the meeting. The items can be added to the agenda of future board meetings.