Our Opinion: Graduation marks end of an era for valedictory honors

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Graduation always signifies an end and a beginning. Today, Wilson County Schools’ commencement exercises will conclude a time-honored tradition of recognizing individual academic excellence.

Fike, Hunt and Beddingfield high schools will spotlight valedictorians and salutatorians for the final time. In January 2017, the Wilson County Board of Education voted to phase out valedictory honors and replace the top titles with the Latin system of awarding diplomas summa cum laude (with highest honors), magna cum laude (with high honors) and cum laude (with honors) in 2020.

Those distinctions are used at the college and university level where students are graded on a 4.0 scale and dozens of grads complete their degrees with identical grade-point averages. High school course offerings where an “A” translates to 4.5 or 5.0 points produce more variation.

Several surrounding county school districts have already switched, and the move mirrors a nationwide trend. Proponents say the competition to snag the top two class ranks can be unhealthy and the goal requires students to forgo life-enriching electives and load their schedules with Advanced Placement and honors classes for the sake of GPA inflation. Traditionalists say the change shifts the focus from individual achievement to collective recognition and reduces scholars’ incentive to strive for singular greatness.

Both perspectives have some validity. It isn’t fair to make students choose between a theater, art or music class that may spark a lifelong passion and academic courses with weighted GPAs that will bolster their class rank. Yet, life is full of unfair choices and imperfect trade-offs, and it may be an equal disservice to delay this realization.

Competition in the classroom is no less healthy and formative than competition on the athletic field. If it’s a concern that a fraction of a point in a final weighed GPA or a lone test score can separate vals and sals from similarly high-achieving peers, consider that a high school sprinter can still win by a nose and a single extra-point kick can decide the winner of a football championship.

While Wilson County Schools can reduce the prestige of earning the two highest grades, it can’t do away with the distinctions entirely. North Carolina law requires public high schools to calculate class ranks. Each school will still have a No. 1 and No. 2 graduate. Those students just won’t receive the title of valedictorian and salutatorian and won’t have the honor of addressing their peers from the commencement stage.

In 2017, vals and sals suggested a compromise that this editorial page heartily endorsed: Leave valedictory honors in place and add the Latin honors system to strike a balance between competing interests. “Keep the Latin designations for high achievers,” we wrote. “Just don’t take away the laurels top-ranked graduates rightfully earned.”

That Solomonic solution appeared to please everyone and shortchange no one. But the school board wouldn’t swing at that pitch, and we don’t sense any appetite to revisit the issue.

Over the past two weeks, The Wilson Times has profiled the last class of Wilson County Schools vals and sals in a series of front-page stories. While each student charted a unique path, some similarities emerged. Top graduates said they keep planners or calendars to organize their assignments. The value of time management can’t be overstated.

Valedictorians and salutatorians also spoke of their friendship and said they challenged, motivated and rooted for each other. This year’s heads of the class provided no proof of the supposed cutthroat competition school board members cited 2 ½ years ago.

At Wilson Early College High School, valedictorian Elizabeth Pridgen and salutatorian Rachel Watson were recognized during May 16 commencement exercises.

At Hunt High, valedictorian Rebekah Ann Pierce and salutatorian Emma Fatzaun will address fellow Warriors today.

At Beddingfield High, valedictorian Ellison Wade Taylor and salutatorian Kaitlin Abrams will send the Bruins off to commence their post-high school journey.

At Fike High, co-valedictorians Lillie Quinn and Chibuike “Chibby” Uwakwe and salutatorian Keifer Snedeker will deliver parting words to the Golden Demons.

Wilson County’s final valedictorians and salutatorians are destined for great things. We congratulate them on reaching the pinnacle of academic achievement.

Congratulations are also in order for each and every graduate who will walk across the stage today. Whether they attend a four-year university, community college or trade school or they join the military or enter the workforce, we wish our grads wisdom, diligence and success in their future endeavors.