Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Competition still keen to win top of the class

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Deer Park High School's five valedictorians (front to back) Sam Koros, Michelle Huster, Andy Wilfong, Chris Driver and Alisha Stauss took the same classes and received the same grades.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
Never mind that high schools across the country, troubled by increased competition, are increasingly doing away with the practice of naming a valedictorian.

The tradition remains alive and well in the Tristate - with a few twists.

At Deer Park High School, for example, five students tied for valedictorian this year, the first time in the school's 65-year history that so many students qualified. The competition was tough but friendly.

Chris Driver, Michelle Huster, Sam Koros, Alisha Stauss and Andy Wilfong shared the title for the Class of 2003 after taking identical honors classes throughout high school and all earned straight As.

The students, all friends, pushed each other to do their best.

"It was like running a race, having someone there to set your pace," said 18-year-old Michelle, who will major in natural sciences and pre-medicine this fall at Xavier University.

Students chase the coveted title - some beginning as early as eighth grade - hoping it will help them gain an edge in getting the right scholarships and getting into the right college.

But attending the college of choice - even for valedictorians - is no longer a sure thing. Competition is tough because of the surging numbers of college-bound students.

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Ohio State University, for example, had 20,000 applicants for 6,000 freshman spots this fall.

"At Ohio State, 15 years ago, anyone who had taken college prep courses and had gotten their application in on time was automatically admitted,'' said Mark Lampe, a Wyoming High School counselor. "Now, it's more competitive."

Competition to become valedictorian has even led to lawsuits. Since 2001, judges in Ohio, Massachusetts, Michigan and Washington have been asked to decide cases related to valedictorian titles. The Ohio case involved two girls from Valley View High School in Germantown, who sued for - and won - the right to be co-valedictorians.

Joseph Runge, assistant head of the Upper School and director of college counseling at Cincinnati Country Day School, said every school in the country has seen competition increase.

"With so much media attention focused on college admission and the college counseling process, it can't help but trickle down to the students and then manifest itself in inordinate pressure," Runge said.

While her parents expected her to achieve straight As, it was Jennie Timperman's decision to take on the tougher courses necessary to become valedictorian.

That meant a schedule packed with six honors and Advanced Placement classes.

"I was not sure if I wanted to commit to so many difficult classes my senior year, but I came to the conclusion that I hadn't worked hard the past three years just to give up at the end,'' said Jennie, 18, who graduates this year as one of four valedictorians at Colerain High School. She will attend Miami University, where she will major in math and secondary education.

Shawn Dimantha, 18, is this year's valedictorian at Indian Hill High School.

"We have a lot of talented kids,'' he said. "There's much competition, not only academically, but also in terms of extracurriculars."

Still, he said, the competition isn't cutthroat.

"One of my best friends is salutatorian. I haven't lost any friends over it," said Shawn, who will attend the University of Pennsylvania, where he'll major in bio-engineering and business.

For some students vying for valedictorian, getting their first B is a traumatic experience. But when the initial shock wears off, it's liberating.

Lindsay Meck, a senior at Talawanda High School in Oxford, was a potential valedictorian knocked out early in her sophomore year because of a B+ she received in world cultures.

She will still graduate with highest honors and bears no grudges.

"I don't regret not being a valedictorian," Lindsay said. "I guess I would love to speak at the ceremony, but I was pleased not to have the extra pressure to get straight As through really tough courses."

Barbara A. Murdock, a guidance counselor at Boone County High School in Florence, cited three reasons students pursue the title:

• Some colleges and universities offer scholarships designated for valedictorians.

• Almost all outside college scholarship applications ask for class rank and use it in determining who receives money.

• The status and accomplishment of being named the top student in a class.

About 10 years ago, Wyoming considered eliminating class rank but decided against it.

"There are some colleges that insist on class rank, and if you don't report one, they may create one that may be a disadvantage to the student," Lampe said.

When high schools eliminate class rank, it creates a headache for Mabel Freeman, assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions and first year experience at OSU.

About 20 percent of Ohio high schools no longer provide class rank or designate valedictorians, she said.

"They are concerned, especially the better high schools, that their students are being disadvantaged for scholarships and admission if they don't rank as high as students at high schools that are not as competitive," Freeman said.

Without class rank, OSU takes a student's GPA, looks at a rolling three-year average of how students with similar GPAs at the same high school fared at OSU and predicts how well the student will perform.

In the Tristate, at least two schools are changing the way they honor their top students.

Starting with the Class of 2005, Colerain and Northwest high schools will eliminate the valedictorian and salutatorian titles in favor of summa (students with at least a 5.55 GPA), magna (5.25 GPA) and cum laude (4.5 GPA or students with straight As in general classes).

The change will allow the two high schools in Hamilton County's second-largest district to honor more students.

"The top students are very, very competitive and want that No. 1 ranking," said Judy Seymour, counselor for the top 5 percent of each class at Colerain High School.

"Too many times they were taking courses they did not necessarily want to take to keep the rank. It was not uncommon to have several students a year in my office crying."

Because they were on the valedictorian track, they felt they had no choice, she said.

Last year, Colerain honored eight valedictorians. This year, there are four. Under the new system, Seymour said, Colerain might recognize 75 to 80 students.

The change won't eliminate the competition, but Seymour's phone might ring less. Every year, she receives a half-dozen calls from parents of middle-school students, wanting to know what classes their children should take to be valedictorian.


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