GARDINER — With graduation approaching, Gardiner Area High School seniors and their families began to speak out recently about a decision reached a year ago that would have ended the practice of recognizing the top 10 students in the graduating class.

The Maine School Administrative District 11 board of directors reversed that policy decision during an emergency meeting Wednesday night.

Instead of using only the Latin honors system — recognizing the valedictorian, salutatorian and students with a grade point average of 90% or better — Gardiner Area High School also will honor the top 10 students of the graduating class.

The change was approved by a 12-1 vote, with school board member Matthew Lillibridge in opposition.

Lillibridge said he was opposed to the change, because he didn’t want the vote to create a precedent where the board could reverse a decision dependent on social media buzz.

“One of my issues is we are setting a bad precedent,” he said. “It is for all students, not just the top 10. The school board are the elected representatives of the town and serve in the best interest of all. … It was not only the top 10 students who worked hard, every student worked hard, they weren’t the only ones.”

Quinton Martin, a student member of the school board, voiced his feelings about not recognizing the top 10 students at graduation. He is one of the top 10 students.

“I have a slight bias, I am a member of the top 10, but I would like the recognition,” Martin said at the meeting. “I’m glad we are going in the direction of recognizing the Latin honors system. And it’s good to recognize the students who work just as hard as they do and still have amazing grades, but I’m glad for myself and people in the top 10 and people who strive for these goals — it’s something worth pursuing.”

Superintendent Patricia Hopkins said she had received at least nine letters from students opposed to eliminating top 10 rankings, and read all of them during the meeting. Board members all noted how impressed they were with the quality of the students’ letters, which came from students in top rankings and those who are not.

“We thought it was the one thing COVID couldn’t rip away from us,” one top senior, who said the ranking was a goal from the start of their first year, wrote.

The decision to make the change came last year on recommendation of Gardiner Area High School Principal Chad Kempton, starting with a May 12, 2020, curriculum committee meeting. According to the minutes of that meeting, the committee recommended the following policy change:

In following policy, the leadership at GAHS will be adapting practices around graduation recognitions starting in 2021,” the minutes state. “The changes in practices will be reflected in the GAHS Student Handbook printed for the 20202021 school year. Edits explain that the high school will recognize the top two students as valedictorian and salutatorian.

“Then, any student meeting the GPA requirements using a Latin Honors System will be recognized,” the minutes continue. “The categories of recognition include: Summa Cum Laude, Magna Cum Laude, and Cum Laude.”

That policy change was approved during the June 4, 2020, MSAD 11 school board meeting.

While the district handbook reflects the Latin honor system under the “Class Standing” section, it also indicates there will be top 10 rankings.

“At the twelve-week academic checkpoint of the second semester of the school year, the top ten students in the senior class will be ranked according to their cumulative grade point averages,” the handbook states. “… The valedictorian and salutatorian students will be expected to speak at graduation. Students who are ranked three through six in their class will be expected to speak at the Class Day assembly.

“… In addition to class rank, G.A.H.S. uses the Latin honor system (used by colleges and universities) to recognize students for their academic performance as part of graduation ceremonies,” the handbook continues. “Recognition categories will be as follows:  Cum Laude (cumulative grade point average of 90.00 to 92.99), Magna Cum Laude (cumulative grade point average of 93.00 to 96.99), and Summa Cum Laude (cumulative grade point average of 97.00+).”

The argument against recognizing the top 10 students laid within the “fairness” of the system. Some board members argued that students can be fractions of points away from making the cutoff.

Kempton said at Wednesday night’s meeting colleges and universities across the county vary on the criteria they deem important for student applications, mainly because students across the globe have different ways of grading. There is “no one size fits all” for grading, he said.

“Not reaching the top is a part of life,” wrote senior Staysha Staples. “Losing a game by a point, coming in second, simply because someone failed short, doesn’t mean those who reach their goals should be punished. Please don’t take it away.”

Students who wrote letters agreed the Latin honors system may be a good switch to make in future years, but not for the current classes. Ultimately, the school board decided to keep both systems in place for this year and future years.

“There are always students that are high achieving, and that’s awesome,” MSAD 11 school board Chairperson Becky Fles said. “But we also have to remember, there is a large majority not in the top 10.

“Some students require extra resources and materials, and these are all of our students,” she added. “Those are who I think of when I make a lead, when I speak and when I vote. All children need to be celebrated.”

MSAD 11 will have its graduation ceremony June 12 at the Augusta Civic Center.

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