Pins, tassels, valedictorians? Changes coming to Wake high school graduations

Wake County Schools honor the final class of Valedictorians

The top students graduating from Wake County’s high schools are recognized during the Wake School Board meeting in Cary, on Tuesday, May 1, 2018. School officials say that naming valedictorians causes ‘unhealthy competition”.
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The top students graduating from Wake County’s high schools are recognized during the Wake School Board meeting in Cary, on Tuesday, May 1, 2018. School officials say that naming valedictorians causes ‘unhealthy competition”.

Wake County’s high school graduation ceremonies are changing this year now that the school district is no longer singling out valedictorians and salutatorian for special recognition.

High schools have changed how they pick speakers since time won’t automatically go to the seniors with the two highest grade-point averages. Some schools are also banning seniors from wearing special tassels and cords associated with honor societies and clubs.

“Many parents with these graduation accolades have joined in on FB (Facebook) stating they still have their stoles, their cords or collars that they earned,” Kelly DeBrosse, a Sanderson High School parent, said in an email. “These are memorabilia, small tokens for years of hard work.. To remove them is to remove the future students role models, to diminish accomplishment..”

The first of Wake’s 31 high school graduation ceremonies will be held Tuesday starting with the district’s smaller schools. The majority of graduations will be in June.

Wake County school leaders drew the ire of conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh in 2016 by saying that ending the naming of valedictorians and salutatorians would end “unhealthy competition,” the News & Observer previously reported. Last year’s graduations were the final ones to recognize valedictorians and salutatorians.

Wake switched to the Latin Honors system, which is modeled on how colleges and universities recognize top achievers. This school year marks the first time the new system is being used to recognize graduates.

Seniors with a weighted GPA of 4.25 or higher will receive the distinction summa cum laude. Those with a weighted GPA of 4.0 to 4.249 will get the distinction magna cum laude, and those with a weighted GPA of 3.75 to 3.99 will receive the designation cum laude.

Video: Cary High School commencement at the Raleigh Convention Center on Monday, June 12, 2017.

The Wake County school system is requiring high schools to provide stoles that can be worn around the necks of seniors who qualify for Latin honors. But aside from that, the district says individual schools will decide what students may wear at graduation.

“Schools have many different academic programs and traditions that they have spent a lot of time building,” district spokeswoman Sara Clark said. “For this reason, our schools also have great flexibility with how they choose to recognize their own unique programs and honors during graduation.”

Some Wake high schools are providing stoles to seniors who got at least the 3.75 GPA for Latin honors.

Others like Sanderson and Millbrook HIgh School in Raleigh are providing identical-color stoles to all their seniors. The stoles include additional wording if the senior qualifies for Latin honors.

Setting limits

Some schools have also put new limits on what can be worn on graduation day. They’re more flexible about what can be worn at senior awards assemblies.

For instance, Millbrook told seniors that at this year’s graduation ceremony they could only wear pins for National Honor Society, International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme and the Digital Media Career Academy. Last year, seniors were allowed to wear cords for National Honor Society and being in the top 5 percent of their class in GPA as well as a IB Programme medallion.

Sanderson High is following a similar restriction this year, no longer allowing students to wear National Honor Society stoles, colored tassels or honor cords. Instead, the school is only permitting pins for National Honor Society and the Academy of Finance.

Crystal Johnson, a Sanderson parent, said high-achieving seniors won’t stand out at the graduation because they’ll only have their small pins on the identical-colored stoles.

“Why is it necessary for everyone to look exactly the same walking across the stage?” Johnson said. “Why are they eliminating the proper recognition of students?”

DeBrosse, the Sanderson parent, has taken to social media as well as meeting with Greg Decker, the principal, to voice her concerns. She said Sanderson is not letting the seniors celebrate their academic wins.

“It sickens me to think these are the very people trusted to instill values in students,” DeBrosse said. “They have no values of their own that is clear. The very people that have seasonal large trophies and dinners and banquets for sports.

“It’s very clear where the emphasis lies and it is not on the academic side of things to say the least.”

Decker did not return a telephone call from the News & Observer requesting comment.

Standing out

Other Wake high schools are being more flexible. For instance, Wakefield High School in Raleigh is letting seniors wear their National Honor Society stoles as well as any cords and pins given on Senior Day. All Wakefield seniors will have stoles, but the students with Latin honors will have a different color to help them stand out.

While Wake does give schools flexibility about graduation attire, Wakefield principal Malik Bazzell said schools in the same area try to be consistent in what they allow.

Bazzell also faced another graduation-day issue in selecting student speakers.

Some Wake high schools continued the tradition of giving speaking slots to who would have been the valedictorian and salutatorian. But Wakefield was among the schools that held a competition for seniors to try to win the speaking slots.

“There are a lot of students with something to offer and something that can be expressed that students would find profound,” Bazzell said. “Just because they have the top honors doesn’t mean [the valedictorian and salutatorian] connect with the class or are the best speakers.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.