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Crown Point senior Nicole Libiran accumulated 500 signatures of students who encourage ranking, recognition of valedictorian and salutatorian and organization of graduation by laude system.

CROWN POINT — Beginning in 2017, students graduating from Crown Point High School earned a distinction normally associated with colleges and universities.

Instead of having their class ranking listed, or the top few students being named valedictorians and salutatorians, graduating students now earn the designations of summa cum laude (4.25 GPA or higher), magna cum laude (minimum 4.0 GPA) and laude (minimum 3.75 GPA), with summa being the highest academic honor, on their diplomas.

Plans to implement the laude program were developed at the high school several years ago with input from students, faculty and parents, according to Principal Chip Pettit.

Last year was the first year there was no student ranking and no valedictorian.

Pettit said, “Our students were being negatively impacted during the college admissions process due to using class rank as a way to sort students.”

Crown Point Community Schools has an enrollment of 8,501.

Pettit said students at the top of the class were just as vocal about the need for change as students in the middle of the class.

But one of those top students says otherwise.

Senior Nicole Libiran said she put together a petition at the beginning of this school year and accumulated more than 500 signatures of students who encourage ranking and recognizing a valedictorian and salutatorian, as well as organization of the graduation ceremony by the laude system, where laude students are given diplomas first.

“It was my biggest dream to become valedictorian ever since I was young,” Libiran said. “I wanted it all — the pride, the speech, the honor, the feeling of accomplishment.”

Pettit said one of the things that is hard for some to understand or accept about the current laude program is the notion there no longer is a valedictorian.

“People my age, parents of our students and their grandparents, all went to school with the traditional recognition for the student at the top of the class,” he said. “We have to keep evolving to develop programs that best serve our students.”

Libiran believes her class as incoming freshmen were poorly communicated to about the ranking system being gone. It was when Libiran attended last year's graduation she first learned a valedictorian and salutatorian were not recognized nor guaranteed a speech. Instead, anyone whose grades ranked as summa cum laude could submit a speech, and the best ones were chosen.

“I felt like I was cheated out of something that I deserved and worked hard to attain,” she said.

“I was devastated, especially after taking 10 AP (Advanced Placement) classes, receiving an A in all of them and giving my all in all my schoolwork, ultimately receiving a 4.56 GPA, only to be recognized as the many with a 4.25 and above. Instead, someone with a 4.25 GPA could give my dream graduation speech, despite my extensive efforts to receive a 4.56 GPA to guarantee the speech.”

Pettit said they are still in the planning stages of the graduation ceremony and won’t make a decision on how it will work until later in the spring.

Other districts drop with class ranking or adopt variations

Several other high schools in the Region are doing the same as Crown Point, doing away with recognizing a valedictorian and salutatorian, though some still recognize class rank. 

Lake Central High School Principal Sean Begley said the district, which has 9,586 students, has been using the laude system for many years. He said during his teaching years he witnessed students purposely not take classes because they were not honors courses and it would lower their GPA, even if they received an A in the class.

Munster High School has been using the laude system since the 2009-10 school year after a committee examined whether to drop class rank and valedictorian and salutatorian; 4,039 students attend Munster schools.

"The primary reason to eliminate rank was the majority of students who ranked in the middle of the class were harmed by class rank on college scholarship applications," Principal Mike Wells said.

Wells said, for example, that prior to the laude system a student with a 3.5 GPA at the high school could be ranked 135 out of 361 students. 

"A 3.5 GPA is great, but they could fall in the middle of the pack," he said.

Wells said for graduation, summa cum laude students who want to give one of the school's two commencement speeches audition first in front of faculty and administrators. 

Duneland schools Assistant Superintendent Jim Goetz said that while Chesterton High School does not recognize a valedictorian, it still ranks students. At the graduation ceremony they honor certain school groups, such as student government, whose members sit in the front and receive diplomas first. After that, it is done alphabetically. Duneland schools have an enrollment of about 5,800 students.

Valparaiso High School has not had a valedictorian or salutatorian for decades, said Valparaiso Community Schools Assistant Superintendent Jim McCall. Valparaiso Community Schools has an enrollment of 6,235 students.

"We want the focus to be on the student and their personal growth instead of promoting a sort of unhealthy competition that could exist when pursuing that sort of title," McCall said.

VHS provides class rank to students who are pursuing scholarships where that is a criterion as well as a preferred acceptance to colleges with that criterion.

VHS recognizes students with GPAs of Distinction (4.0 and above) and Highest Distinction (4.15 and above). These students are honored at an academic excellence banquet, given medals worn during commencement, and are recognized in the commencement program.

McCall said it is about striking a proper balance.

"By not having class rank, it would harm our students in their pursuit of scholarships and admission to certain colleges," he said.

"We do have that listed, but it is de-emphasized by our distinction and highest distinction recognition."

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Hammond Schools Superintendent Walter Watkins said the district's four high schools use the traditional ranking system and name a valedictorian. He said they have not talked much about the laude system in Hammond, but will look at it with his academic team and "see what we can do about that."

Hammond has four high schools and, with an overall enrollment of 13,768, is the largest school district in Northwest Indiana.

Many factors to consider in rankings, student involvement

Libiran plans to attend Indiana University in Bloomington, which does not offer a valedictorian scholarship. Libiran said many colleges do offer a valedictorian scholarship, however, that she would not have been able to apply for. 

Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis is one of those schools that does offer such a scholarship. Libiran said it pains her to know that if she were graduating two years ago, her situation would be different.

Fellow senior Kira Schuelka, whose grades also put her in the summa ranks, said she is fine with the laude system, but still thinks the school should recognize at least the top 10 academic students. Schuelka, like Libiran, said everyone in summa has an idea of their class rank. 

“Because those kids — not saying other kids have not worked their butts off — but those kids worked very hard, and now they are lumped together with everybody.”

Another senior, Andrea John, who is ranked magna cum laude, said she likes the new system, and top students will be recognized in the graduation ceremony program and with colored stoles.

“I think it is important we recognize everyone, because there are so many people involved with extracurriculars,” she said. “So many people have jobs and work 20 or 30 hours a week and don't have time to put in all the studying.”

Russell Marcinek, Crown Point High School assistant principal, said a misconception of the laude system is that the school is somehow discouraging competition.

“There are achievement benchmarks that students are striving for, and we honor those accomplishments with various forms of recognition,” he said. “The issue we were having was that so many of our kids are achieving at a high level, and the tug and pull of trying to be in the top 10 became a distraction.

"There were consistent attempts to game the system, trying to leap-frog others just so they could be in that group. We had students who loved music but refrained from taking orchestra because the course isn't weighted like an AP course.”

Schuelka said she "didn't play the AP game."

"I was able to keep above the GPA and still take newspaper and non-weighted classes. That's just how it worked out." 

Libiran said she has found the whole experience frustrating. 

"Such efforts to receive recognition and honor for what others and I have worked hard for has only made my senior year experience dreadful and disappointing."

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Lake County reporter

Rob covers urban affairs and other matters in Crown Point, St. John, Winfield and beyond. Previously he covered Valparaiso, Hammond, Gary and East Chicago. He's also written for various magazines and pens a culture blog for The Times.