Policy for Determining Valedictorians/Salutatorians Dominates Discussion at Pinelands Regional Meeting

Jan 23, 2019

A proposed change in policy looked innocuous enough on the agenda for the Pinelands Regional School District Board of Education meeting of Jan. 16.

It simply called for a one-word substitution in the district policy that guides the process for picking the valedictorian and salutatorian of each graduating class. Instead of using students’ grade point averages at the end of their seventh semester – halfway through their senior year – to determine the valedictorian and salutatorian, their GPAs at the end of their eighth and final semester would be the new criterion.

But it turned out that one-word change sparked many hundreds of words of debate, making it the most discussed item of the evening.

The proposed change may have been voted on without discussion if it weren’t for Steven Vitiello, a Little Egg Harbor resident, father of a Pinelands senior, stepfather of a former Pinelands valedictorian and high school principal (he didn’t mention at what school), and Brielle Gulya, the high school’s 2016 valedictorian.

Vitiello told the board he had concerns over the “logistics and implementation” of the policy change.

“When I first became a high school principal I also found it kind of odd that we determine the valedictorian and salutatorian after seven semesters instead of eight. But I quickly found out many reasons why.

“Finalizing grades at the end of any marking period or at the end of any semester can take time. Issues come up that can delay the process, corrections sometimes need to be made, and grade changes happen. When the important issue of naming the valedictorian and salutatorian comes into play, the last thing that you want to do in an already chaotic last couple days of school is rush that process.”

There are also, said Vitiello, many logistical concerns for students who are honored with the titles. Although the titles valedictorian and salutatorian don’t carry as much weight as they used to in some circles, many colleges and universities still give them considerable weight when considering applications for admission. The titles also can help when students apply for scholarships, grants and honors programs.

Vitiello added that such students take an incredible amount of time and effort in drafting their graduation speeches. Plus, having a student named valedictorian or salutatorian is also a great honor for a family, he said, and it takes time to notify far-flung relatives and for them to arrange travel to the graduation ceremony.

“Waiting until the last few days before graduation eliminates or hinders all of those potential benefits for our students.”

Vitiello went on to say that top-flight competitive students are under a tremendous amount of pressure throughout their secondary school careers, from middle school on. Being named valedictorian or salutatorian early in their final year gives them a chance to breathe, to consider many other decisions they have to make (what college, what major, etc.?) that will help determine their futures. Finally, the early naming of the title-winners gives them a chance to receive the congratulations of family members, teachers, administrators and friends before everybody disperses for the summer.

Vitiello also said changing the policy at this time was unfair. Seniors, he said, have been operating for 3½ years under the old policy, strategically planning their class schedules for maximum benefit. Now, just a few weeks before the valedictorian and salutatorian would be named under the old policy, there’s talk of changing the rules. It would be like training for years to run a 3-mile race only to have the finish line moved back a mile as you approached it.

So if, he said, the board were to change the policy, couldn’t it wait until the start of the next school year?

Gulya seconded many of Vitiello’s concerns. But she especially addressed the pride of accomplishment issue.

“The school had photographs of the Top 10 students by the front door. I will always remember the sense of accomplishment I felt as I walked past it every day.” She also appreciated the kind words of friends and teachers who congratulated her for her work effort and dedication to study.

The most touching testimony from Gulya occurred when she spoke about the importance of giving relatives enough time to arrange for travel to the graduation ceremony. Her voice teetered on the edge of breaking when she said “giving my speech and looking out into the audience and seeing my grandpa sitting there as he was battling lung cancer was the best moment of my entire life.”

“So, why are we changing the policy?” asked board member Jeffrey Bonicky when Gulya concluded. “What did I miss?”

Superintendent of Schools Melissa McCooley said the policy change had been offered at the recommendation of teachers and members of the administration. They had noticed, she said, a considerable drop-off in both attendance and work effort among students, even top-ranked students, after the class ranking had been announced following the end of the seventh semester. Indeed, she said, the drop-off in effort was so noticeable that teachers often became discouraged.

“We want to send a message to all students,” said McCooley. “Each and every day of the school year is important.”

Bonicky continued to be a skeptic, saying in a half-mocking voice, “I didn’t know it was an epidemic.” If it was, he said, “I’d thought we would have heard about it prior to today.”

But a teacher with 18 years of experience at Pinelands, Shannon Sobiech, took to the podium and backed McCooley in no uncertain terms.

Gulya, she said, wasn’t guilty of letting her foot off the academic pedal in her final high school semester. But Gulya, she said, was an exception as well as being an exceptional student. Most seniors are not Gulya.

“After the first semester is over the majority of the senior class feel it is time for fun and games. They stop going to school ... they simply stop doing work.”

Poll other teachers who teach seniors, Sobiech said, and you’ll find out they see the same things she does.

The policy change was approved on first reading but with the understanding McCooley would have to submit more data – from both Pinelands and other districts – before it could be formally approved on second reading at the board’s February meeting.

So, it is still up in the air whether the new policy will be approved. But board members did seem to indicate that even if the policy was changed they’d like to see it take effect at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, not immediately.

In other news, McCooley reported that the district had experienced a little over 6,000 student absences as of two days before the meeting. In the entire 2017-2018 school year there had been over 21,000 absences. So, she concluded, the district’s new attendance policy, which reduces the number of allowed absences from 20 to 16 and which was advertised in letters to parents, the district newsletter and at McCooley’s back to school night address, seems to be helping. Reducing student absences was one of McCooley’s primary goals on becoming superintendent last spring.

It was also announced that the high school gym, which was scheduled to be reopened to the public toward the beginning of January, is still closed to the public. The gym itself, the board was told, is game ready and looks great. The problem was the cleanup of the surrounding areas the public would have to access to get to the gym, the installation of a canopy outside the gym’s entrance and the need for inspections.

“We’re in no rush to get back in there,” said McCooley.

“It gives me time to paint the locker rooms,” said John Bellone, the district’s facilities manager.”

— Rick Mellerup


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