High Schools Make Room at Top for Grads

Laura Buchanan is one of 41 valedictorians who graduated this month from Robinson Secondary School.
Laura Buchanan is one of 41 valedictorians who graduated this month from Robinson Secondary School. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 17, 2006

All those late-night study sessions finally paid off. Christina Azimi graduated as valedictorian of Fairfax's Robinson Secondary School.

So did Travis Halbert, Azimi's friend since elementary school. And Jonathan Cross, who was in her English class. In fact, when Robinson Principal Dan Meier praised the school's top academic talent at commencement Thursday afternoon, nearly two full rows of graduates stood to be recognized as valedictorians.

"At this time, I would like to award all 41 students who have achieved that honor," Meier said as the crowd cheered. "I tell these guys," Meier joked, "the only thing I have in common with them is I rarely received a B in high school myself."

As high school graduates across the region accept their diplomas this month, one tradition has changed greatly. The title of valedictorian -- the coveted top slot for the brainiest student -- is no longer necessarily reserved for the single best student.

A growing number of schools, such as Robinson, bestow the title on every graduate who earns a grade-point average of 4.0 or higher. Montgomery and Howard county schools have done away with the distinction to ease competition in a system that was producing increasingly more 4.0 students. Other districts -- Prince George's and Loudoun counties, Alexandria and the District included -- have stuck with the traditional route: Pick one valedictorian and a salutatorian. (Unless a tie forces a few students to share the glory.)

The push for multiple valedictorians began years ago, prompted by concerns that high school had become too competitive -- so competitive that a few students seeking the title filed lawsuits. As more students enrolled in weighted advanced classes and earned grade-point averages far above 4.0, educators wondered whether it was fair to single out one teenager. There was concern a student would take a less challenging class to guarantee an A or take on an unreasonable workload of weighted classes to boost a GPA.

Meier said that in a school as big as Robinson Secondary, which had 687 graduates this year, it would be a shame to single out only one high-achieving student.

"The competition is very, very steep to be shortstop or to be the lead in the class play," Meier said. "But when you have 30 or 40 people who have a GPA over 4.0, this is a way to recognize all of them."

Cross, a Robinson graduate with a 4.15 GPA, is happy to share the honor with his friends. He said that as the school year wound down, students bantered little about class rank.

"We didn't have to beat each other for that one title," he said. "While it was competitive, it's cooperative. I didn't feel it was that cutthroat."

But Robyn Burgess, a co-valedictorian at Oxon Hill High School in Prince George's, does not buy the argument that everyone can be a winner. She is not thrilled that a virtual tie in GPA made her share the honor.

"My whole aim is to be on top," Burgess said. "If I was one of a few, it's not as special."

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