Head of the class now a thing of the past?

Posted5/9/2010 12:01 AM
  • Kim Gaspar, left, and Mary Kate Nelson both would have been co-valedictorians, but Glenbard South no longer recognizes the designation.

    Kim Gaspar, left, and Mary Kate Nelson both would have been co-valedictorians, but Glenbard South no longer recognizes the designation. Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

Once a staple at high school graduation ceremonies, class valedictorians - and their end-of-the-year speeches to classmates - have become increasingly scarce.

Many suburban schools now lean heavily against singling out the class's No. 1 student. Instead, many recognize a longer list of academic high achievers; they also audition students for the right to give the commencement address, an honor once conceded to the valedictorian.

For the first time in the nearly 100 years of its existence, Libertyville High School will not have a valedictorian address the senior class on June 4. School officials decided eliminating traditional class rankings and the valedictorian speech ensures a relevant and meaningful commencement speech.

Two of the biggest high school districts in the area - Northwest Suburban High School District 214 and Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 - have not recognized valedictorians in several years.

Last year, Glenbard South in Glen Ellyn became the final of the district's four high schools to do away with its valedictorian recognition.

Antioch-Lake Villa High School District 117 observes a protocol now common in the region. It recognizes the class's Most Outstanding Male Student and Most Outstanding Female Student after an exhaustive screening process that starts with faculty and staff nominating students. The staff then narrows that down, and remaining candidates audition in front of senior class board members and officers, as well as faculty sponsors. The panel selects the winners, who serve as emcees of the ceremony.

Superintendent Jay Sabatino said the size of a class can make it tough to determine a top student based on grades alone.

"At a larger school, trying to find one out of 600 is more difficult than out of 175," said Sabatino, a former principal in Westmont. "At larger schools, that becomes more problematic."

The audition process makes it easier to take into account other factors, such as public presence and extracurricular activities. Also, Sabatino said, some students could manipulate the system to earn the No. 1 ranking by taking classes that are either less rigorous or fewer in number.

At Glenbard South, the top two students who would have been co-valedictorians will be mentioned in the program. Even that concession, however, came about only after the two students complained to school officials. At the graduation, the senior class president and student union president will address graduates.

Principal Terri Hanrahan said the policy helps ensure students focus on the right things.

"You want kids coming in to have the best exposure for their success when they leave high school," she said. "You want to emphasize to them, not who is No. 1, but to have a great learning environment."

Hanrahan also said a challenge occurs when several students end up with the top ranking.

"What happens if you have eight or 10 with the same GPA? Who would you have speak?" she said.

But some schools are sticking with tradition.

West Aurora High School still honors a valedictorian, as do all three schools in Maine Township High School District 207, based in Park Ridge.

And the five high schools in Elgin Area School District U46, the state's second-largest school system, still recognize valedictorians.

Elgin High School Principal David Smiley sees no need to change. The school has about 2,400 students and the drive to earn the top spot is as heated as anywhere else. Smiley said he has heard some parents argue that valedictorian rankings create unwelcome competition.

"I understand where the parents are coming from, but we're probably at the most competitive time in Illinois and society for jobs," Smiley said. "As our kids go forward, and not just college-bound kids, but also kids heading into the work force, you have got to be competitive."

As students move on to college and the top students head to prestigious academic institutions, Smiley said they will benefit from that competitive drive that comes with seeking the coveted valedictorian title.

"They're going to go to school with the best kids in the country," Smiley said. "You're going up against so many that you have to fight through and continue on and give it your best effort. That's a part of it. We want our kids to be able to go out and thrive in society."

At the school's May 29 graduation, the valedictorian and a senior representative will speak to the graduating class.

"Those kids in that Top 50, they've given it everything they have," he said. "Being No. 1, that's not denigrating. It's an awesome accomplishment."