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BOE to reconsider whether valedictorian, salutatorian should get first crack at graduation speeches

July 21, 2013|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com
  • Bethany Magner was Washington County Technical High School Valedictorian and did not get to give her speech.
By Yvette May / Staff Photographer

The issue of whether the valedictorian and salutatorian should get first crack at being graduation speakers is being reconsidered by a Washington County Board of Education committee after one school’s valedictorian didn’t get to speak this year, school system officials said.

Board of Education member Jacqueline Fischer, who chairs the board’s Policy Committee, said Superintendent Clayton Wilcox asked the committee to review the issue after he received a complaint that Washington County Technical High School’s valedictorian didn’t get to speak at the June 4 graduation ceremony.

Graduation ceremonies for the school system’s other eight high schools featured speeches by the valedictorians and salutatorians, except for one high school where the salutatorian chose not to speak, a school secretary said. Tech High’s salutatorian did speak at the school’s graduation ceremony.

Tech High’s policy, since about 2006, has been to hold auditions among those seniors with the top six grade-point averages, Principal Jeff Stouffer said.

Stouffer said when the decision was made, the school system didn’t have a systemwide policy specifying the top two students had to speak, and he had seen a trend in the Tri-State area and across the country moving away from having the valedictorian and salutatorian speak.

Another issue discussed at that time was that Tech High had printed graduation programs listing the valedictorian and salutatorian speakers and when the final grades came in, one of those students no longer was the valedictorian or salutatorian, Stouffer said. But the students named in the program still spoke as such, he said. Stouffer said that has happened at other schools, too.

The school’s student handbook states the main reason behind the speaker selection process is to recognize more top students at the ceremony and hear the best and most inspirational speakers from that group.

“I think it’s a really, really good process if you truly want the best speakers,” Stouffer said. He said he has no plans to change the school’s policy unless he’s ordered to do so by school system leaders.

Tech High’s salutatorian did speak this year, but not its valedictorian.

“I did want to speak, yes. And I tried out, but I didn’t get picked to speak,” said Tech High valedictorian Bethany Magner, 18, who studied biomedical sciences at the technical high school.

“I was very upset ... I actually did cry,” Magner said. But, she said, she got over it, thinking, “I’m still going to graduate.”

Magner said she doesn’t “really agree” with the school speaker policy, and thinks “it’s kind of strange to have a policy like that.”


Reading between the lines

Magner’s speech starts with a quote from Abraham Lincoln about how people should fight for what they believe in, and includes a saying from scripture about all being possible to those who believe.

The speech goes on to say, “Today, we need to believe that we will go out into this world and change it for the better! We must be the best we can be and show everyone that no matter what life throws at us, we can overcome it.”

Magner’s grandfather, Richard Magner, said he didn’t file a complaint about his granddaughter not getting chosen, but he did speak to a school system official and a board member about the matter.

Richard Magner said he thinks the valedictorian and salutatorian should get the first crack at being graduation speakers. If one or both don’t want to speak, then the audition process Tech High has set up could be used to determine alternate speakers, he said.

“This is not in any way slamming the valedictorian or salutatorian. This is simply to get the best speakers. That is the drive behind this,” Stouffer said. In some cases, the valedictorian and/or salutatorian don’t want to speak, he said.

Tech High’s student/parent handbook, which addresses how speakers are chosen, was available at the school’s website at www.wcps.k12.md.us/washington_county_technical_high/index.html.

Bethany Magner said she “didn’t really read” the handbook, and the first she heard about the policy was when Stouffer called the top six students into his office in January or February to explain it to them.

Magner said when she learned of the policy, she didn’t agree with it, and thought if she were one of the top students, she should be able to give a speech at graduation.

“Let’s face it, when you’re given a handbook, do you read every fine line? I don’t, and I’m a retired auditor,” Richard Magner said.

Stouffer said Tech High officials try to go over most of the handbook with students at the start of each school year. Around March, or earlier, the top six students are asked to decide whether they want to audition to speak, and their parents sign off on that decision, he said.


School board policy

In December 2007, the school board voted to update the regulation concerning graduation honors, according to minutes for the Dec. 11, 2007, board meeting. In doing so, the board amended the proposed changes to eliminate a staff proposal that a group of students with the highest honors each submit a speech to a selection committee so speakers could be selected based on the quality of content of the speeches and the students’ delivery.

Fischer said the three board members on the Policy Committee have not reached a consensus on the matter, and have asked staff to research what other schools and school systems, both locally and in other areas, are doing. Committee members might individually discuss the issue with other board members, and input from parents and others would be welcome, she said.

The Policy Committee is expected to discuss the issue again July 23 during its 11 a.m. meeting at the school system’s administrative offices off Commonwealth Avenue, Fischer said.

Asked her opinion on the matter, board member Donna Brightman said she would like to hear what students want.

“Again, I think it’s about them, not the adults,” Brightman said.

She said she wanted to hear what mattered to the schools’ communities and the students, in particular this coming school year’s juniors and seniors.

Jessan Groenendyk, the student representative for the school board, said the county’s Student Government Association hasn’t met this summer, so it doesn’t have a position on the issue.

“As someone in the running to be valedictorian or salutatorian, I would feel that I have the right to speak,” but it’s up to the principal to make the final decision, said Groenendyk, a student at the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts.

Board members Karen Harshman, who is on the Policy Committee, and Melissa Williams both said the valedictorian and salutatorian should have the right to speak, if they want to do so, at graduation.

If they choose not to give a speech, continue down the list of students with the highest grade-point averages, Harshman said.

“I think that’s something the kids work for,” Harshman said.

Having the opportunity to speak to your class at graduation is part of the honor of being first and second in your class, said Williams, who noted she’d like to see a systemwide policy to that effect.

Fischer said she wasn’t certain, but she would prefer the valedictorian and salutatorian have first refusal. If they don’t want to speak, then open it up to some type of competition, she said.


Who should have the final say?

Board President Justin Hartings and Vice President Paul Bailey both said they had open minds about the issue.

Bailey said the valedictorian and salutatorian probably should be given right of first refusal, “but I’m really tied up on this one. I haven’t heard any recommendations from our committee yet.”

Hartings, who sits on the Policy Committee, said he hesitates to mandate how schools should handle their graduations, as many schools have their own traditions.

He said his first instinct is to let the schools continue to do things the way they have or to let them make their own decisions about graduation speakers.

That’s not to say his mind couldn’t be changed, Hartings said.

Board member Wayne Ridenour said he liked that schools had some flexibility in choosing speakers and wanted to let schools continue their traditions.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said he didn’t have a strong opinion about whether the valedictorian or salutatorian speaks at the graduation ceremony, but said those students should be recognized for their scholarship during the graduation ceremony.

“I really think this is a school-based decision,” Wilcox said.

Stouffer said senior awards — including the valedictorian and salutatorian — at Tech High are recognized during a public senior awards ceremony. The valedictorian is not recognized at the actual graduation ceremony, he said.

Bethany Magner said she was asked the day of the senior awards ceremony if she wanted to speak at that ceremony. Without time to prepare a full speech, Magner said she said a few words.

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