Being a valedictorian is a rare honor, and it’s getting rarer in the Omaha metro area.
Bellevue West High School will honor eight valedictorians Saturday, but in the not-too-distant future, the school will have zero.
The Bellevue school district is the latest in the metro area to phase out the tradition of recognizing the highest-ranked student as valedictorian.
The district has adopted a new way of recognizing top students. It will award diplomas in three tiers: highest distinction, distinction and diploma. The tiers will be based on GPA, credits and advanced coursework.
The Bellevue Public Schools will still keep track of class rank in case students need it for college applications.
The district will choose graduation speakers by tryout.
The change will take effect with the graduating class of 2022.
Bellevue officials cite some of the same reasons as other districts for ending the practice: reducing student stress from competing for rank, encouraging students to take more diverse course schedules and the ability to recognize more kids for academic achievements.
“We are looking for ways to raise the bar for all of our students,” said Kevin Rohlfs, Bellevue West principal.
Officials hope the new system “is a motivator to get our highest end students to reach for that highest distinction,” Rohlfs said, “and then we’re hoping that some of our average students see that distinction category and think ‘Hey, I can make that,’ which will just hopefully get them into one or two more AP classes and strengthen what they’re doing.”
Students pursuing valedictorian generally find they must stick to Advanced Placement courses, whether they enjoy them or not, to stay on track, he said.
“We’ve in the past had a student that as a senior said ‘I’m not going to be valedictorian because I want to stay in band.’ She had to drop an AP class to stay in band. That shouldn’t be a struggle for that student, to say I’ve got to do one or the other.”
The tiered approach means the student can dive into AP courses in their areas of interest but take some electives, he said.
Bellevue school board member Nina Wolford, a former Bellevue teacher, said she backs the change.
“Instead of having to choose weighted classes to protect class rank, students will be more free to explore areas they’re really interested in,” Wolford said.
Students should learn for the joy of learning, she said.
Frank Kumor, also on the Bellevue board, said many colleges care more about test scores and what students have accomplished in school than a student’s class rank.
Under the new tiered system, Kumor said, students have to work hard to prove they’re top-notch.
“This is going to challenge the smarter kid,” he said. “When a kid has this higher distinction, he’s really going to earn it.”
To graduate with “highest distinction,” a student will need to earn a 4.25 GPA on a 4.0 scale and successfully complete an average of three advanced or AP courses a year while taking a full course schedule.
Bellevue administrators tested the new system using data from the 2017 senior class and found that 5 percent of the students would have made the top tier.
Nathan Peterson, 17, is one of the eight valedictorians this year at Bellevue West.
Peterson said recognizing more students will be good.
Currently, he said, a student aiming for valedictorian could get discouraged if they get a B grade and drop out of contention.
The student could lose motivation and not care about taking high-level courses anymore, he said.
“But now they can maintain that drive with the effect of still being able to earn distinction under some other title,” he said.
Since 2015, three of Nebraska’s largest school districts have moved away from class rank and valedictorians.
The Millard Public Schools and Papillion-La Vista Community Schools will end the practice in 2020.
The Gretna, Elkhorn and Council Bluffs Community school districts do not recognize valedictorians.
Officials in the Bennington Public Schools are reviewing their policy.
There are no current proposals to do away with valedictorian in the Omaha Public Schools or the Westside Community Schools.
OPS school board member Lou Ann Goding said: “It hasn’t been a topic for us.
“I haven’t had any parents bring that to us,” she said.
Goding said that while class rank tends to matter less with some colleges, others still consider it.
College admissions officers surveyed in 2016 indicated that the top factors in the admissions decision were grades in college-prep courses, GPA, admission tests scores and strength of curriculum.
Two out of three counselors said class rank was of limited importance or not important at all for admissions.
In Millard, counselors report that the change is already producing some positive effects for this year’s sophomore class — the 2020 graduating class.
Counselors say they’re seeing lower stress levels and a reduction in students taking early morning and summer courses solely to pump up their GPA.
“So often our students were pushing themselves beyond their limits through taking zero hour, doubling up on summer school, et cetera,” said Millard North counselor Jillian Depue, “and it left little to no time to explore different activities and created more stress and work for them.”