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MY WORD: New academic policies at confict

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By Phil Tripp

The graduating class of Collins High School learned this week that all graduates will be seated in alphabetical order, breaking the longstanding Shelby County tradition of honoring the top-ranked graduates by seating them on the front rows at graduation. I am writing to lament the way our schools have watered down the recognition of students who excel in academics.
A recent press release by Shelby County Public Schools stated that the Shelby County Board of Education will recognize more students during the commencement exercises, based on revisions to the academic honors board policy.
Beginning with the 2010-2011 school year, grade-point averages will be calculated on a new scale, with less weighting for Advanced Placement and honors classes. The reasoning behind the policy change was that in the past many students have taken more rigorous AP and honors classes just to receive a higher GPA and improve their class rank.
Is this a bad thing? Those students who take more rigorous classes receive the benefit of being challenged, regardless of their motives for taking the classes.
One parent who was a member of the committee who recommended the changes stated, “This [new policy] gives more students the chance to be recognized and eliminates the competition [for top spots] while encouraging students to think more like a team rather than against each other.”
I submit that students thrive on competition.
This same press release revealed an obvious conflict with the reasoning behind the new policy when it quoted Harvard University as saying, “The strongest applicants take the most rigorous secondary school curricula available....” Apparently Harvard recognizes that students who have taken more rigorous classes are better prepared to be successful college students.
SCHS Guidance Counselor Cathleen Johnson even acknowledged in the press release that “college admission representatives tell us frequently that a B in an honors or accelerated class is better than an A in a regular class. The honors/accelerated class is better preparing the student for college curriculum.”
How ironic is it that SCPS just announced exciting plans to launch an accelerated academy for both high schools? This new program will provide educational enrichment for the 30 top students in each grade at both schools, focusing on a demanding schedule full of Advanced Placement courses.
Kerry Fannin, the assistant superintendent for student achievement, stated, “It will shift the focus of our enrichment program and advance it to a new level. We are bringing the most rigorous set of course offerings in our schools and setting the stage for middle school students to aspire to be part of this prestigious program.”
Freshmen will dive right in with AP and honors courses. As they advance, the curriculum will become even more challenging.
Fannin said the program will provide more classes with a concentration on Advanced Placement or dual-credit courses: “We see this as a response to the call for preparing our students for the future – by producing a product that will be the target of talent searches at some of the most elite universities in this country.”
The schedule will be dominated by demanding classes, with students taking 17 AP courses. Fannin continued, “The academies will certainly prepare these students for a dynamic future….The bottom line is that we are taking extra measures to strengthen student academic skills so that upon graduation they may take active leadership roles in the 21st Century, and in so doing strengthening our hometown, our state and our country.”
Do you see the direct conflict between the new policy meant to decrease competition and the exciting plans for an accelerated academy to offer the most demanding schedule possible?
I agree with Superintendent James Neihof, who noted in a recent column in The Sentinel-News that our community needs to push for high expectations when it comes to student achievement. Mr. Neihof has also challenged the school board recently by saying that ambitious goals are inspired by high expectations.
However, under the new policy, students who have a GPA of 3.5 will graduate cum laude, regardless of whether they have taken any AP or Honors classes at all.
What percentage of the class will graduate either cum laude, magna cum laude or summa cum laude with that minimum standard? If we want “the talk of the town” to be about academics, we need to reward excellence in academics in a big way.
Ask the top 20 students in the class whether it would be more rewarding to them to be seated at the front at graduation or to wear a cord around their necks and have their names called out during the graduation ceremony. Why not applaud their efforts by doing all three? Would that really be too much?
Academic excellence deserves the highest honor we can give it.
In the past, high distinction honor graduates, those students with a weighted GPA of 3.7 or higher, and honor graduates, those students with a weighted GPA of 3.4 to 3.69, were seated according to class rank, followed by the rest of the class in alphabetical order. Two years ago, the 2009 SCHS seniors were surprised to learn a few weeks before graduation that the top students in the class would no longer be seated on the front rows at the commencement ceremony. They were understandably disappointed; they had labored diligently for four years with the expectation that their hard work would be reflected in the seating order at graduation.
They expressed their feelings to the Site-Based Decision-Making Council, and the council recognized that it was unfair to change the tradition suddenly when those students had worked years toward this goal. They rescinded their decision, and the top graduates were seated in rank order.
Now two short years later, the same scenario has come up again.
I urge Shelby County Public Schools to reinstate the longstanding tradition of seating our top-ranked students at the front at graduation. They have worked hard to reach their goals, and they deserve to be rewarded.

Phil Tripp lives in Shelby County.