One of the longest-held traditions of high school graduation is slowly slipping off the programs of Kansas City area high schools.
Valedictorian and salutatorian honors, and the speeches that go with them, are showcased less often as districts search for better ways to recognize the achievements of more of their students.
A few schools still have them, but more have stopped naming class valedictorian and salutatorian — students ranked first and second in their classes, respectively — in favor of a tiered or top percentage system that allows more students to get recognition at graduation time.
The Belton School District is starting the transition this year, but districts like Platte County R-3, North Kansas City and Blue Springs were already on board.
“Competition motivates people and this new system will encourage more students to work toward and achieve these honors,” Belton Assistant Superintendent Bob Poisal said in a news release announcing the change.
Belton will phase in a recognition system that looks more like those in college. Beginning this year, the district will honor students who meet the requirements at three levels: cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude.
To be in the cum laude level, students must have from 3.6 to 3.9 grade-point averages at the end of eight semesters, have from 22 to 27 on the ACT or 1030 to 1200 on the SAT, score proficient on all state assessments and complete two extracurricular activities.
Magna cum laudes have a GPA of 4.0 to 4.19 and scores of 28 to 30 on the ACT and 1260 to 1340 on the SAT.
Summa cum laudes come in with grade points of at least 4.2, ACT of 31 and SAT of 1380. Summa cum laudes must complete four extracurricular activities as well.
“The new graduation honors system will provide more students with the opportunity to be recognized for their hard work, commitment to excellence and high performance within a system that is already in place at colleges and universities,” Belton High School Principal Fred Skretta said in the same announcement.
Valedictorian honors won’t go completely away. At least not yet.
Because some students have already been working on the assumption that those awards will be bestowed, Belton will continue them through 2017 along with the new cum laude honors. Students in those categories also will wear colored stoles of white, silver or gold.
The district wanted to recognize more than just the top two students for their work, said Kristin Beason, communications coordinator.
“We felt we had a lot of bright and intelligent students who were not being recognized for high achievement.”
Travis Norman, a 2014 graduate, has no problem with that. The grades show up on the final transcript anyway, he said.
“It’s a way to recognize more people for their work,” he said.
It will make more of a difference for students who wouldn’t have been recognized without the change, he said.
Cayleigh Dunaway, 17, agreed. Because of the new system, Dunaway will be recognized cum laude this year. In years past, she might have gotten only an exclamation point on the program for an academic letter.
A.J. Goffoy, 18, said he likes how the school will do it during the transition, with both the top two students and the laudes. That way the valedictorian and salutatorian also get their honors.
“It does mean a lot to be the first or second out of 300 kids,” he said.
The students didn't know whether the new system would motivate some of their peers to work harder.
Belton is not the first in the area, though, to change to the tiered system. The Platte County R-3 district started it in the 2011-12 year, using the same grade point designations but without the college testing and extracurricular requirements, said Laura Hulett, director of communications.
The change has been favorably received, she said.
“We haven’t had any negative feedback. I’m sure most parents are happy to have all students who are achieving be honored,” she said.
Hulett, herself the valedictorian for the class of 1997 at Platte County High School, said she likes the new way of doing things.
“I would have been happy to be part of a class that honored more students,” she said.
Blue Springs High School is in its second year of the tiered system, with the top tier being a 4.0 grade-point average and above. Sheryl Brown, registrar, said some parents asked for the change and it has been well received.
Schools across the county have been busy since at least 2007 expanding the tent for recognition of high-performing seniors.
Last year, Redmond High School in Redmond, Ore., named 29 valedictorians, for example.
The reasons vary, but officials quoted in news stories have said the valedictorian honors can cause an unhealthy competition and a focus on grade point average that ignores other important traits that colleges care about, including voluntarism and participation in the community.
And with differing schools using different ways to weight grades, figuring a fair grade-point average can be difficult. Lawsuits have been fought over grade-point computations, as the competition for a spot at top colleges becomes fiercer.
However, none of that was mentioned in any of the Kansas City area school districts.
Instead, officials said they were mainly interested in maintaining a culture of achievement.
Tiering is not the only way to tackle that. Area schools that don’t have valedictorians have found a variety of other solutions.
North Kansas City schools recognize graduating seniors in the top 10 percent. The Raytown district calls out the students with the top 10 grade-point averages, as it has been doing for the past 35 years.
The Center School District hasn’t named a valedictorian for about 10 years, said Kelly Wachel, public information officer. The district honors the top 5 percent of students, considering grades and the type and difficulty of the courses.
The top-ranked student is named at the ceremony and does give a speech, though.
“The overall message is, we want to honor high achievement,” she said.
There are a few districts in the area that have stayed with the valedictorian honor, however.
West Platte High School had some conversations about a year ago about changing the honors, but the idea never went anywhere, said Shannan Eagen, school board secretary.
Lee’s Summit also has kept its valedictorian and salutatorian tradition. That district also recognizes the top 1 percent and top 5 percent academically, as well as larger groups such as National Merit Scholars, National Honor Society and International Baccalaureate members, said district spokeswoman Janice Phelan.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether schools have valedictorians as far as the speeches go.
Most schools choose their speakers an entirely different way. Often students prepare speeches for a preview by administrators and sometimes for a vote by the student body.