Did the Miami-Dade School Board do the right thing last year when it decided to get rid of valedictorian and salutatorian honors in the county's public high schools, beginning with the class of 2007-'08?
This was one of the main questions asked of four young adults who are not far removed from their own high school years.
In Miami-Dade, no longer will the students with the top two grade-point averages be singled out for honors. Instead, a system that bestows honors on a greater range of students is in place: Students who graduate in the top 5 percent of their class will receive summa cum laude honors; students in the top 10 percent, magna cum laude; and the cum laude designation will go to the top 15 percent of the students or any student who earns a grade-point average of 4.0 or better.
(In the mid-1990s, the Broward School Board considered doing away with class rank but dropped the plan after fierce debate.)
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The four who spoke up during an hours-long discussion included a valedictorian -- Jessica Idiculla, 18, who graduated this year from Cooper City High School, in Broward County -- and a salutatorian -- Weina Scott, 18, who also graduated this year from Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School near North Miami Beach. Two other panelists had been excellent students but had not been ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in their class: Andrew Ruiz, 18, from Hialeah High School, and Becky Farber, Palmetto High School '06, who now attends Bryn Mawr College.
All four panelists have ties to The Miami Herald because they were Silver Knight honorees. While in high school, Becky also wrote a column for the Neighbors section of The Miami Herald.
What follows are excerpts from the conversations that were held at The Miami Herald's Miami office on on Aug. 1 and were led by Leah Fleming of WLRN-Miami Herald News and Rory Clarke, an editor at the newspaper.
Q: What do you think about Miami-Dade's decision to remove valedictorian-salutatorian honors?
Becky: I completely support it. I say, get rid of it. I think that those top two spots cause so much drama, so much pressure. I've seen friendships collapse. I've seen students who are friends not give the math homework to other friends because they want to see each other fail the next day. I just think the pressure becomes overwhelming.
It doesn't really matter in the end because we all know who's smart, we all know who the smartest of our classes are. Kids talk and that's going to be the point of it. We're always going to talk and we're always going to know who's going to be smart, and I think to have the ranks and to have it out in the open and to have it published by Miami-Dade . . . is really fostering that type of competition that I don't think is healthy.
Weina: I think the reason why I'm so against the valedictorian and salutatorian is because we could have been more productive without it. The top 10 people in my school, we were very competitive, so we had to look over our back all the time -- who's taking what classes, spying on each other in terms of schedules and stuff. I think it would have been better if we collaborated.
Andrew: I'm unbiased about it . . . I think it's a nice honor for someone to have to be valedictorian-salutatorian. I haven't witnessed, as Becky has, the fighting so much.
Q: Jessica, this decision doesn't affect you because you went to Broward schools, but what do you think about it?
Jessica: I think I'm kind of unbiased, too. It's a good idea that they don't want just two kids to get this honor, but I also feel like the two kids who did work that hard, and it is a nice honor for them to have it.
Q: So, picture yourself going back to high school, only this time, when you go in, you cannot be valedictorian because they don't have that. Would that disappoint you?
Jessica: I think it would have been because I think I wouldn't have worked as hard for it. I would have worked very hard still because I'm that type of person who wants to achieve, but I wouldn't have done as much as I have done in high school because there wouldn't have been anything to work toward.
I feel like there's always something, some kind of goal, to set yourself to. If you're just saying, "I want to be a smart kid, " yes, you can be a smart kid and do anything. We're high school kids. We need some kind of guidance. We do need rules and we do need things, something tangible for us to obtain.
Q: Becky, Andrew: Neither one of you secured the top two positions. Did you set out to do that?
Becky: No, I was not aiming to be valedictorian or salutatorian. It wasn't in my quest to really get top two, and that's because I had other things that I was focusing on.
I had extracurriculars; school was my biggest priority. High school is a time when you have to get ready for college. It's a huge part of growing up and a huge part of what you're doing, but being top two or the top wasn't really what I was aiming for. I was aiming for the top, definitely, but not the top two -- that's just too much pressure.
Andrew: It's the same for me. My sister was actually in the top 10 of Hialeah-Miami Lakes when she graduated, and my family pushed me to get it, but it wasn't necessarily on my top priority.
I'm more of a social-activities kind of person than the grades, but of course, my grades are important. It was one of my priorities, but not as important as activities were.
Q: Talk about competition: Isn't it extremely American? Isn't that the ideal, to go out and be the best you can?
Weina: I spent the last two weeks in Wall Street basically in a Merrill Lynch program where I was able to get to know the leaders of Wall Street -- CEOs, COOs, presidents, vice presidents -- and it's all about competition.
Andrew: With having all of that and the competition, I understand that you're getting a lot of experience, but how do you feel? You said [earlier] that you really didn't have a social life.
Weina: High school, I get that it's all about competition, but you can have competition and promote well-roundedness, too. Having the summa cum laude, cum laude, magna cum laude -- it still fosters competition, but it also encourages students to strive for a well-rounded life. . . . Growing up, becoming an adult, becoming independent, is not all about grades. It's also about the people that you meet, the relationships that you form, the friendships that you make. Those are the things that will last you a lifetime, that will make you successful.
What I found these last two weeks is that there is competition in the business world, but also what made COOs and CEOs successful is networking. It's forming relationships with people. It's social life, having social skills. Staying in your room all day studying because you have eight AP classes every year is not fostering your social skills.
Andrew: I don't know if you really got my question. You said that in the room, you didn't have a social life much in high school because you're always studying, you were always focusing on all of that and of course your business also developed into something else. So wouldn't that be something that you would change -- you would have more of a social life?
Weina: I am going to have some sort of social life, considering that I won't be working as much as I used to in terms of my business. I cut my hours. Is that what you're. . .
Andrew: I'm just referring to high school. In high school, you didn't have much time. You said that you have to work really hard to be valedictorian, salutatorian. Is the only reason you wanted that position for you was the colleges? Because there are a lot of people who still aren't No. 1 and No. 2 and they still get into higher universities.
Weina: The overall thinking is that colleges like Harvard and Yale, they want top of your class. So that's why I pushed and pushed to be top of my class. That was the thinking. But you're right, there are students who are ranked 26 and they do get into the best universities in the United States.
Q: I was curious about some of the bad aspects of competition.
Weina: We can't call each other for homework help, because we're competing against each other. I remember that I was competing against this girl, who's to remain nameless, and I asked her for a favor once. And she said no, I'm not going to help you because guess what, I'm competing against you. I think I would have been a better person if we had collaborated with one another instead of backstabbing or competing against one another.
Jessica: In my school, we were also very competitive, but in our competitiveness we were never overly hostile at each other. If anybody asked me for help with anything, I was going to help them. . .
I know out of our top 10, some of my best friends were in the top 10. We were all competing against each other, but we were still able to be friends. There were one or two kids who were kind of back-stabbing, like taking extra classes without telling anybody else and things like that, but in the end, when I look back on it now, I don't regret it. The competition just made me better.
Becky: We're always going to know who's smart; we're always going to know who's at the top of our class. Kids talk. We get back our test scores and we look at each other's. We look at who's next to us; it's the nature of being in high school. But I think that having a system that literally promotes ranking and designates numbers to students, No. 1, No. 2, what have you, clearly is feeding into this craze, and it's making students go nuts.
Andrew: But that's still going to exist, though. You would need to change the whole system for the whole nation because when a college is asking for applications -- and I filled out five of them -- they have all asked me for my class rank.
Becky: They can figure it out themselves; it's not really a big deal. Private schools don't rank; 85 percent of them don't. It's something the public schools need to catch on to.
Weina: Actually, college applications have a section that says, "Does your school rank? Yes or no." So you can always say no, and I don't think they'll look down on you badly if your school doesn't rank. . . .
Also, colleges don't rank themselves. Harvard, Yale, they don't have salutatorians or valedictorians, and you know why? Because they want their students to be well-rounded. They want students to take the classes that interest them.
Jessica: I was valedictorian of my class, and if anyone told me that I didn't get anything out of it and I wasn't involved in my community, wasn't involved in extracurriculars, didn't have a life, I would be, like, what are you talking about? I took classes that I cared about. I took some classes that I didn't care that much about, but I took more so classes that I cared about.
I did everything that I was passionate about in my life, and I had my friends and everything, and I didn't have to sacrifice so much. There are some people who have to work a little bit harder to get there, but you were saying that everyone knows who's smart. Nobody knew I was valedictorian of my class until senior year, when it came out. . . .
I'm told that day when I was on the stage, there were still people who asked, "You're valedictorian of our class? I never knew that." It's like I did work really hard, and if I didn't get recognized, I really would get over it, but at the same time, this whole time, everyone's thinking, she's not smart, she's just, whatever. That one day was the day that I got to stand up there and say how I felt. I got to do a speech. . .
If I was No. 10 and someone else was No. 1, oh, great for them. It wouldn't bother me that they were one and I wasn't because I know that I did whatever I could to be where I am.
Weina: But I think it puts so much pressure on you. You had a unique experience, but there are some people that their parents pressure them, you have to be No. 1, and it's not healthy. I don't think it's healthy.
Jessica: My parents are like that. My parents pressured me a lot. Obviously, if they didn't know that I could do it, then they wouldn't have been pressuring me. But my parents always made sure -- no, you have to get A's, not B's. You don't do anything else. You do that in school, but I took that and I used that to my advantage.
I feel that people can do that if they want to. I feel if you take that pressure and you channel it into something good -- for me I was, like, OK, I'm going to do well in school, but I'm passionate about dance and soccer and things like that.
I used to play soccer when I was younger and I loved it. But I didn't have as much time in high school to work around someone else's schedule. So instead, I became a soccer coach. I found that I liked that better and was able to work with little kids and make it on my own schedule and still do the things that I was passionate about.
So it's like compromising. You just have to find a way to make it work with yourself. And it's how much you're willing to give up and how much you're not.
Weina: I think the reason that Miami-Dade is pushing to get rid of the valedictorian and salutatorian is because in some schools, it's getting crazy. In my school, they told me the story of this guy who went through the air vents [of the school] so that he could get the answers to the AP exams before everyone else did.
Becky: The kid who cheated on the AP exams at my school, there was a huge scandal when I was a junior and it really wasn't the crazy kids. It was kids who wanted to do well and kids who the pressure ate away at them and this was their reaction.
Becky: I think the most traumatic day of my high school career was waiting in line to get my class ring and being surrounded by my peers, my classmates, my friends, and just standing line to get that number from my guidance counselor. For me, that was the most traumatic experience because the buzzing, it was palpable, the tension. . . .It was so much so that I wanted to run home. I didn't even want to get my ring. I wanted to run home.
Weina: So many friendships are destroyed through this process. Once, I learned that I was No. 2 and my friend was [behind me]. Once she learned that, she cut ties with me completely. There is no communication. She hates my guts now.
Jessica: Let me ask you a question. If your friend is going to completely cut ties with you, . . . she's not really your friend. That's how I look at it. . .
I know that there are girls at school who say, "I wish Jessica had a nervous breakdown; she doesn't deserve this." OK, that sucks. All I know is obviously I don't want to be friends with her.
Weina: It's not the system. It's the person.
Jessica: No, it really is a response, though, to this competition. . . . Think about the thought process: Have a nervous breakdown, Jessica, because then you won't be able to do your work, you'll fall, we'll all be able to get ahead.
Becky: I definitely think the world we're in is going to be more competitive than any high school. . . . My boss isn't going to rank me as number No. 20 and number No. 5.3. I don't see it as a constructive way of dealing with students and a constructive way of having students learn. I don't see it as really fostering education. I see it as fostering competition.
Weina: I think that the school system should promote competition to strive for your best but not to compete with one another and backstab one another [so that] there's so much pressure on you that high school is a miserable experience.
Andrew: I really don't know -- Palmetto and Krop are two schools from the county that my school can't stand. And the reason for that is there is so much negative connotation.
I'm so sorry that you guys have had such a horrible experience, but we didn't have that much competition -- except for the No. 1 and No. 2 -- so far as "I wouldn't help you with your homework." I think it's ridiculous.
Andrew, 18, graduated from Hialeah High this year and was 26th in a class of 887 students. He was the Silver Knight winner in the Journalism category. Andrew, who was 14 when his mother died of breast cancer, was honored recently by United Way, in large part because he collected thousands of dollars for the American Cancer Society. He also founded Teens Against Cancer and promoted the Relay for Life fundraiser. Besides being managing editor of his school yearbook, Andrew was president of the National Honor Society, vice president of the Key Club and a member of Quill and Scroll and the Law Club. He is headed to the University of Florida.
Quote: "I don't think there are many that had more fun than me. I feel I was pretty well-rounded."
Rebecca, 19, from Palmetto Bay, graduated last year from Miami Palmetto Senior High, 24th in a class of more than 700. She now attends Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where a social honor code prohibits students from discussing grades. At Palmetto, she was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper during her senior year. She also wrote a column for Miami Herald Neighbors called "Report Card" that focused on education issues from a student's point of view, and she received an honorable-mention award in the Silver Knights in the Journalism category.
Quote: "One of the huge reasons why I chose Bryn Mawr because it's the anti-high school. It is so anti-Palmetto in that I'm not competing against any of my classmates. Ever. I'm competing against myself until I graduate."
Weina, 18, recently graduated from Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School near North Miami Beach as salutatorian in a class of 841. At Harvard this fall, she plans to pursue her interests in computer science, medicine and business. Weina, who lives in the North Miami Beach area, is a 2007 Growing UP CEO Winner. She is also a Silver Knight winner in the New Media category.
When she was 10, she immigrated to the United States with her parents from Haiti. At age 16, she started a podcast-hosting company called Switchpod.com, and she sold it a year later to a public software firm, Wizzard Software Corp., for $200,000. She was appointed chief executive officer of Switchpod.com, managing the company and working 20 hours a week, while still in high school.
Quote: "Competition is good, but sometimes it gets bad. Sometimes it makes you forget the more important things in life."
Jessica, 18, of Davie was valedictorian of her class of 611 at Cooper City High School this year and is headed to the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, where she plans to study business before becoming a surgeon. Her honors include winning the Silver Knight in General Scholarship and the U.S. Marine Corps Scholastic Excellence Award.
Quotes: "I'm an overachiever and so I always try to set my goals as high as possible. And then if I don't get all the way there, at least I feel like I've pushed myself further . . . I just wanted to do good in school, and I ended up doing it, I guess." "On the graduation day, when I was standing up there, I could see how proud my parents were in the front row, and I think that was the best moment for me."
'WE LOOK AT EVERYTHING'
Earning top spot in a high school class certainly helps in life, but it's not an automatic ticket to the most selective universities.
Princeton University, top-ranked by U.S. News & World Report this year, declined to admit more than four in five valedictorians who applied last year. That's still better odds then the general acceptance rate, where fewer than one in 10 applicants gets an welcome letter.
"It's incredibly competitive, " said Janet Lavin Rapelye, Princeton's dean of admissions. "Being a valedictorian or salutatorian is not enough to separate anyone in our pool. We look at everything."
Rapelye said the Princeton admissions officers look chiefly at whether applicants have chosen the most challenging courses available at their school -- and whether they have been successful. Sometimes, that overlaps with valedictorian status.
"Almost twice the rate of everyone else -- that's the good news, " she said.
But? "When we flip it around, we didn't admit 82 percent of the valedictorians."
-- NOAH BIERMAN (nbierman@MiamiHerald.com)