NORWALK, Conn. — A polarizing firestorm ended Tuesday with a Norwalk Board of Education unanimous vote to create co-valedictorians for the Norwalk High School Class of 2018.
“It’s a very complex issue … a very polarizing issue,” BoE Chairman Mike Barbis said to begin the Board meeting in the Brien McMahon High School Center for Global Studies. “The professionals who run our school system should have addressed this, but the ball was dropped, and it’s been left to the nine members of the Board of Education to fix this.”
BoE member Bruce Kimmel later said it’s not a matter of a ball being dropped but of “growing pains” as the district moves toward 21st Century education standards, and Adamowski suggested that deeper changes may be in order.
Both Norwalk Early College Academy students and NHS students attended the May 16 BoE meeting to complain about what they said was a shift in grade point average calculations and, as a result, class rank.
“Up until two months ago I was valedictorian of my graduating class,” NHS senior Katerina Karaiskos said. “Why the sudden change? I lost my slot because of the currently proposed method of calculating the NECA students into the traditional ranking system pool.”
The NECA student who moved up to be valedictorian, Ryan Stelly, “simply happens to be an incredible student with incredible work capacity and intellect, who just worked and worked and worked, and got an A is every college class he took,” Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said.
Chaz Bethel-Brescia, an NHS senior, said he’d been checking his transcripts routinely and had been ranked second, but in mid-March dropped to third.
Bethel-Brescia spoke to the Board on Tuesday to express appreciation for the short-term solution, creating co-valedictorians and a salutatorian based on the end of the year GPAs and working over the summer to create a permanent solution.
“This issue is beyond who is being graduated this year. This affects the college and scholarship application process, the entire student body at NHS,” Bethel-Brescia said.
Bethel-Brescia said after the meeting that he really liked the language the Board used in its resolution, calculating the GPA when all the facts are in, and that he didn’t know if he’d be third or fourth.
The Policy Committee will be taking a careful review… the goal will be to create a level playing field for all students,” Barbis said at the outset of the meeting.
“Many seem to think there was a conscious decision that was made by the district that allowed this to happen. This is not correct,” he said.
The last time the Board voted on a change to the GPA policy was 2012, when Genesis was the software used for the grading database, he said.
“The fields and weights for courses were established at that time. This system was transferred identically three years ago when we made the switch to PowerSchool,” Barbis said. “When NECA began four years ago no specific changes were made to the database. PowerSchool automatically calculated its GPA, and thus class ranks, based on the information that is fed into it, grades and credits. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“The way a computer was programmed a number of years ago thus explains the current situation that came about,” Barbis said. “Some might argue it should have been foreseen but let’s remember all of the moving pieces that were required to build a brand-new cutting edge school.”
NECA is a great achievement but, “The grade point average and its ensuing impact on class rank was overlooked in all of the many steps that it took to establish and grow this program from nothing four years ago to a school of almost 400 students today,” Barbis said.
When it came time for a vote, Board member Barbara Meyer-Mitchell suggested that the coming Board new policy be retroactively applied to underclassmen.
“We will be working on that,” Policy Committee Chairwoman Heidi Keyes said, explaining that the Policy Committee doesn’t normally meet over the summer but this is a pressing issue.
“I don’t think it’s a question of we dropped the ball and we missed something. Of course we did but the bigger issue is that I think we’re experiencing growing pains,” Kimmel said. “As district grows and it becomes more aligned with 21st century education we are going to find ourselves in uncharted territory when it comes to a lot of things… Our kids come to school with different academic entanglements, we are going to constantly be adjusting the way we think, and the way we calculate things.”
“I am hoping that as the Policy Committee looks at this, as the Board as a whole considers this issue further, that we can use it as an opportunity to create a more contemporary updated system that may be less competitive than the traditional system,” Adamowski said. “As one looks at the history of high schools and then looks at the best high schools today, you can see this evolution occurring.”
GPAs are a remnant of the old industrial high school system that created winners and losers, and NPS is moving toward an expanded high school program of study with multiple pathways, “all designed to create a situation in which virtually every student can be successful,” he said, predicting, “not winners and losers but a lot of winners.”
Board member Bryan Meek had produced an article that talked about trends at highly successful high schools, one of which is to identify a larger group of top scholars, Adamowski said, explaining that another trend is to eliminate having valedictorians and that this is done at Staples High School.
A third trend is to allow faculty and students, but mostly students, choose a class representative for their graduation ceremony, a student who best embodies ‘the values of the class in terms of their activities, commitments and values,” Adamowski said. “… I hope that as we have updated the program of studies and as we are seeking to create not only a level playing field but to create success for all of our students.”