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Decision No. 13,951

Appeal of ROBERT and ROBERTA SPERRY, on behalf of their son, JEREMY, from action of the Board of Education of the Jasper-Troupsburg Central School District regarding eligibility for selection of class valedictorian and salutatorian and other honors.

Decision No. 13,951

(June 8, 1998)

Shaw & Perelson, LLP, attorneys for respondent, Margo L. May, Esq., of counsel

MILLS, Commissioner.--Petitioners appeal the determination of the Board of Education of the Jasper-Troupsburg Central School District ("respondent") that their son is not eligible for selection as class valedictorian or salutatorian, or for other senior honors, although he will graduate in June 1998. The appeal must be sustained in part.

Jeremy Sperry has been a student in respondent's district since at least the 1993-1994 school year, when he was a seventh grader. It appears that during the 1994-1995 school year, the district implemented a program enabling students to accelerate their graduation from high school, and Jeremy became a participant in that program. He finished that school year as valedictorian of the eighth grade.

Jeremy entered the ninth grade in September 1995, and continued in the accelerated program. On March 2, 1998, petitioners made a written request that Jeremy be allowed to graduate in June 1998. Respondent board met on March 4, 1998, and the minutes reflect the following action:

A motion was made by David Paul seconded by William VanSkiver and carried to approve a request from Jeremy Sperry to receive his high school diploma early as a junior class student. He will not be eligible for any senior graduation awards; his class ranking will be computed with the junior class student ranking. The vote was 6-yes, 0-no.

The following day, the superintendent conveyed respondent's action to petitioners in a letter which advised that respondent had "...approved your request to allow your son Jeremy to graduate this June." The letter also contained this passage: "The Board approved his graduation as an accelerated student and stipulated that his junior class rank would indicate where he stands at the end of the school year. They also stipulated that he will not be eligible for the awards that have traditionally been given to senior class members."

Dissatisfied with this action, petitioners met with the superintendent on March 13. The superintendent advised them that respondent had acted to exclude their son from eligibility for all senior honors based upon Board Policy 7315, adopted in 1988. In pertinent part, that policy provides:

TOP HONORS

The Valedictorian and the Salutatorian of the graduating class shall be the highest ranking class members at the end of the 3rd quarter of the senior year who are students at Jasper-Troupsburg Jr/Sr High School and members of the class for at least two (2) years immediately preceeding [sic] graduation.

Still dissatisfied, petitioners made written and oral presentations at respondent's next meeting on March 18. Respondent took the matter under advisement, but did not change its position.

On March 30, petitioners again wrote to the superintendent, requesting that their son be deemed eligible for any and all awards available to members of the junior class, in addition to all honors available to the senior class. Petitioners attended the April 1, 1998, board meeting, but respondent adhered to its earlier position.

Petitioners commenced this appeal on April 2, 1998. In addition to respondent, petitioners have served their petition on the parents of three other high-ranking students in the class of 1998, whose status and eligibility for various honors may be affected by the outcome of this appeal.

On April 15, I issued an interim order directing that the school district not announce or award any scholarships or academic awards, including the selection of a valedictorian or salutatorian, to any member of the junior or senior classes pending a determination of this appeal. I also set forth an expedited schedule for the service and filing of papers herein. The parties have adhered to that schedule. I have also received letters from the parents of the three high-ranking students, and a letter from one of those students, which I have considered herein.

Petitioners contend that they were never made aware of Board Policy 7315 until after their son had been given permission to graduate early. They argue that the policy by its terms deals only with the honors of valedictorian and salutatorian, and does not apply to any other honors. They further argue that, at least as applied to their son, the policy is arbitrary and capricious, and is contrary to prior Commissioners' decisions dealing with accelerated students. They also argue that their son should be eligible for honors for the junior class, since he has never been eligible for those honors previously. They ask that their son be ranked within the graduating class, that he be considered eligible for all honors and graduating class awards, and that he be "...considered for junior awards as well."

Respondent argues that Board Policy 7315 is reasonable, has been fairly and evenly applied since its adoption, and is intended to ensure that all students competing for graduation honors do so on an equal footing with other students in the graduating class. Respondent concedes that this is the first time an accelerated student has sought to graduate early, and that it has no policy specifically addressing accelerated students. It further argues that students who are excluded from consideration for valedictorian and salutatorian should, by logical extension, also be excluded from other senior honors. Respondent argues that to allow Jeremy to compete for both junior and senior honors would be inequitable. Respondent further argues that petitioners could and should have been aware of Board Policy 7315 earlier, and that at least twice during 1997 Jeremy advised a school official that he did not intend to graduate early.

The parents and students who have filed letters also oppose the relief sought by petitioners. They generally agree with the board's policy and admit that they have vested interests in the matter. It appears that one student, depending on whether he is the valedictorian or salutatorian, may receive a reduced college scholarship.

Respondent contends, quite correctly, that matters involving honors conferred upon graduating students, including status as a valedictorian or salutatorian, are generally a matter of local concern (citing Appeal of Tenbus and Kraack, 35 Ed Dept Rep 320; Appeal of Maloney, 33 id. 154; Appeal of Konkoski, 33 id. 303; Appeal of Kuttner, 32 id. 39; Appeal of Chesbrough, 32 id. 647; Appeal of Boutros, 27 id. 209).

As a general matter, local rules requiring a minimum number of courses or credits in order to be eligible for honors and awards have been upheld when reasonable and evenly applied. However, the special problem of accelerated students has presented difficulties.

Board Policy 7315 was adopted in 1988, before the acceleration program existed in the district. It appears to be directed to transfer students who enter the district after the midpoint of high school. It does not address the question of accelerated students from within the district, nor has it previously been applied to that situation. Although respondent makes much of the fact that Jeremy was twice asked during 1997 whether or not he intended to graduate early, that appears to be irrelevant. In order to comply with the literal requirements of the policy, Jeremy apparently would have had to have made a decision to graduate early at the end of the 1995-96 school year, when he was only a freshman and had only been in the accelerated program for two years. Respondent also raises the issue that, by entering the senior class on March 2, 1998, Jeremy has not been in competition for honors with the rest of the senior class, and that this has somehow resulted in unfair competition. However, the record indicates that in many cases Jeremy has been enrolled in the same courses as other members of the senior class, at the same time, and with the same teachers. I, therefore, discount this argument.

In Matter of Roberts, 15 Ed Dept Rep 269, Commissioner Nyquist dealt with the refusal of a school district to assign a class rank to a student who had completed high school in three years. The school district argued that students who remained in high school for only three years should not be compared to those who stay for four years and take more courses, arguing that it is more difficult to maintain a high average based on a larger number of courses. The Commissioner rejected this argument and stated:

Even if respondent had been able to demonstrate the existence in writing of a policy with respect to the ranking of accelerated students, I could not accept such policy. It is inequitable for respondent, or any board of education, to treat three-year graduates on a different basis from four-year graduates. The number of credits which members of a high school class obtain obviously will vary...Respondent requires a minimum of 18-3/4 units of credit for graduation. A pupil who attends school during four years and who receives the minimum units of credit for graduation is as eligible to be the class valedictorian as a classmate who obtains more than the required number of credits.

The Commissioner went on to say:

Respondent is to be commended for encouraging pupils to pursue a course of studies which will permit them to graduate from high school after three years of attendance. However, students who elect to pursue an accelerated program of studies should not be discriminated against in the assignment of a rank in class.

* * *

The case before us is one of second-class citizenship for those who are not only intellectually gifted but who prefer by motivation, as well as by capacity, to accelerate their studies. The result is loss of status among peers, deprivation of deserved financial subsidies and prizes, and the ambiguities in the admissions race associated with a double standard system of class ranking.

In Appeal of Pelletier, 27 Ed Dept Rep 265, a student finished the eleventh grade in June 1987. She then attended Clarkson University for a year, and sought to receive her high school diploma in June 1988. Her school district attempted to exclude her from honors, although allowing her to participate in graduation ceremonies. Citing Appeal of Roberts, supra, Commissioner Sobol directed that the student be deemed eligible for "all academic honors, awards and scholarships...at the end of the current academic year." (27 Ed Dept Rep at p.268) In Appeal of Chesbrough, supra, petitioner objected to the ranking of an accelerated student with the rest of the senior class to the extent that that ranking would deprive traditional seniors, who would have otherwise ranked first and second, of certain honors. Although the appeal was dismissed on procedural grounds, the board's policy of ranking accelerated students was approved.

In Appeal of Knapp, 34 Ed Dept 357, a case factually similar to this appeal, a student completed high school in three years. The board of education enforced a rule requiring the completion of seven semesters of work in order to be eligible for honors. It appears that the rule was amended during the pendency of the appeal, but the Commissioner, although dismissing on procedural grounds, found that the original policy discriminated against accelerated students in violation of prior decisions. In Appeal of Tenbus and Kraack, supra, an accelerated student decided in August 1995 to graduate in June 1996. By including the accelerated student in the class ranking process, petitioners' daughters were moved down in class rank from first and second to second and third. The case does not directly discuss the question of eligibility of an accelerated student for honors, because petitioners focused their attack on the grade weighting system used. Nevertheless, the principle that an accelerated student cannot be discriminated against was upheld.

Based on the foregoing Commissioners' decisions, I conclude that Board Policy 7315, as applied to Jeremy Sperry, an accelerated student, violates both the letter and spirit of the law.

By making acceleration available, and approving Jeremy's graduation, respondent has made Jeremy a member of the graduating class of 1998. It is, therefore, inescapably clear that Jeremy is eligible for selection as valedictorian or salutatorian as well as any honors and awards otherwise available to any other member of the graduating class. Likewise, by becoming a member of the graduating senior class, Jeremy has obviously ceased to be a member of the junior class. I, therefore, cannot agree with petitioners' argument that he must be made eligible for all the honors of both classes.

I have considered the parties' remaining contentions and find them without merit.

THE APPEAL IS SUSTAINED TO THE EXTENT INDICATED.

IT IS ORDERED that respondent compute Jeremy Sperry's average and class rank as of the end of the third quarter of the 1997-98 school year in exactly the same manner used to calculate average and class rank for all other members of the graduating class of 1998.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Jeremy Sperry shall be eligible for, and shall receive, all honors and awards, including valedictorian and salutatorian, which are available to members of the graduating class of 1998, if warranted, based upon his calculated average and class rank.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Jeremy Sperry shall not be eligible for honors and awards made available to the junior class.

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