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Students protest commencement changes

May 16, 2006|by ROBERT SNYDER

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - A decision by Berkeley County Schools officials three years ago to increase scholarship opportunities for county public school students was found wanting during a school board meeting Monday by a handful of students, who said the change fails to fully distinguish them for their academic achievements.

Joseph Widmeyer, this year's top-ranked graduating senior at Hedgesville High School, told school board members the three-year-old policy, which eliminated class valedictorians and salutatorians, as well as the school's top-10 ranking, robs them of their moment to shine following years of hard work.

"Our four years in high school were dedicated to be the best we could be in our class," said Widmeyer, who was joined in his statement to the board by five other top students at the school. "For achieving the best, recognition should come without question."

Widmeyer told board members the change gives class officers, rather than the top academic students, the opportunity to give commencement addresses during graduation. The students said they hoped for a compromise by being able to lead their class into the auditorium or sit in the front row during the graduation ceremony.

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Assistant Schools Superintendent Frank Aliveto said the change, which reintroduced weighted classes - classes which count more toward a student's overall grade point average - will expand to about 500 the number of students who will be recognized for their academic efforts and allow more Berkeley County students to compete for the state's PROMISE scholarship funds. The new policy echoes university practice of honoring students among three tiers of achievements: cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude.

School board President William Queen said the school system wanted to recognize more students for their work.

"We don't want to take that good feeling away from you, but when we have to think about the school system we have to think about 16,000 students," Queen said.

But students Jennifer Richmond and Alicia Hess indicated the new policy could backfire and discourage competition among students. Richmond said the new policy flies in the face of the competitive environment that graduates will face in the working world.

"When we start working in our society there's not going to be any fairness," she said.

It's that intensity of competitiveness that sometimes encourages students to manipulate the system by taking an easier workload and discourages others who fall outside the very top ranking by a percentage of a point, said Aliveto, who approached the students following their presentation to the board to commend them for their effort.

"I've seen kids drop classes because they figure if there were fewer classes to divide by their GPA would be higher," he said in an interview before the meeting.

Aliveto told the students their class ranking would be indicated on their transcripts.

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