LAND O' LAKES - Traditionally, the top two seniors at high schools in Pasco County have gained recognition at their graduation ceremonies with the designations of valedictorian and salutatorian.
School officials are starting to question whether that concept might be outdated, though, especially now that the proliferation of online classes means a high-performing student can rank as valedictorian while spending little to no time on campus and remaining a stranger to his or her classmates.
Alison Crumbley, vice chairwoman of the Pasco County School Board, remembers just such a scenario at a graduation she attended a few years ago.
"It was demoralizing for the students sitting watching this," she said. "It was probably difficult for the valedictorian giving the speech."
The issue came up July 2 at a school board workshop as the board discussed proposed changes for how class rank is determined. Beginning with incoming freshman in August 2014, the grade-point average for determining class rank would include online classes taken outside the regular school day and middle school classes that were taken for a high school credit.
In the past, those classes haven't been included in the calculation, and district staff members began to question whether the current method is fair. A survey of several other school districts, including Hillsborough and Pinellas, revealed those districts include in the class-rank GPA all courses that count toward the high school diploma.
"If the purpose of class rank is to rank the top students, why are we not including all the courses?" Darrell Huling, a supervisor in the district's Office of Teaching and Learning, said. "Right now, we are isolating a group of courses and using that in the calculation."
Crumbley said the proposed change presents plenty of concerns, especially the possibility that a school's top-ranking student could be completely removed from campus life.
"Maybe I'm the only one concerned about this, but the direction you are going in you are changing the definition of the community of a school," she said.
That raised further questions: Should the system of choosing a valedictorian and salutatorian continue in the traditional manner? Or should the district look for other ways to recognize high-performing students and determine alternative methods for choosing which students give speeches at the graduation ceremony?
No one is advocating an immediate change. School officials are mindful of what happened in Hernando County this year when the school board voted to eliminate the valedictorian and salutatorian designations, then reconsidered when there was a backlash from parents and students.
Still, Superintendent Kurt Browning said it might be time for the district to have discussions.
He noted that colleges don't have valedictorians and salutatorians. Instead, they have honors designations such as cum laude, summa cum laude and magna cum laude that apply to a large percentage of high-performing graduates.
He suggested that might be something to consider.
"Do we want to recognize two students or do we want to recognize many more students than that during a graduation ceremony?" Browning asked.
Board Chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said the valedictorian has always been strictly a class-rank position. Whether the student played any leadership role on campus was never relevant.
Armstrong said some high schools choose a senior of the year who is picked based on a mixture of academics and the active role they played in campus life. She suggested that person might be a better choice for giving a graduation speech.
"Students are going to know them," Armstrong said. "They've been a leader in every area."
Regardless, any change would be phased in, Browning said, so that an incoming freshman class knows exactly what to expect when its commencement ceremony rolls around four years later.