Bellmont superintendent responds to valedictorian controversy


    In the wake of controversy surrounding the decision by Bellmont High School to not name a valedictorian and salutatorian for the class of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, North Adams Superintendent Brent Lehman has released an open letter to the community addressing the issue.
    BHS student JoLynn Hockemeyer spoke before the North Adams Community Schools’ Board of Education at the end of Tuesday’s meeting, reading from a prepared speech. The issue at hand was the school’s recent decision to transition from a valedictorian/salutatorian system to a summa cum laude/magna cum laude system, which would recognize all students graduating with honors, regardless of minute distinctions in grade point average. To graduate summa cum laude, a student must have a GPA between 3.9-4.5.
    Hockemeyer labeled this decision “unfair” and compared it to being called “dishonest” or a “cheater.”
    Lehman was reserved in his response at the meeting, choosing instead to take a little time to provide a more thorough statement.
    Here is Lehman’s letter, in full and without edit:

To the North Adams Community:
    It is obvious to everyone by now that we have experienced some disagreement concerning the naming of a valedictorian and salutatorian. This has been a difficult journey for students, family, staff, guidance counselors, administrators and school board members. Part of that difficulty lies in the fact that the information published or shared about this decision has not always been factual. I do not fault any person for that. Emotional topics generate strong passions. And, in times of strong emotions, story lines tend to take on a life of their own.
    To begin, I want to share the process that led to the decision to not name a valedictorian and salutatorian this year. To preface this part of the explanation, I need to directly address one point of widespread misinformation, in particular. The decision for this year was and is a one-time decision based solely on the anticipated impact of the closure of face-to-face education during this unprecedented school year. Have there over the years been conversations in consideration of doing away with these titles as other schools in our area, like Norwell and Bluffton, have done? Yes. Are there school personnel who don’t personally feel these titles share the same meaning as they once did? Yes. Does that mean that there was underhanded plan to remove these two awards permanently during this time of crisis? No. That is simply false. If there ever was a move to do that, it would be transparent and would begin with an incoming freshmen class.
    So, that brings me to why the decision was made to not recognize a Valedictorian and Salutatorian during the initial weeks of the stay at home order. The information coming from the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) was unclear and changing on a daily basis. When many misinterpretations of the DOE’s intentions surfaced it then had to regroup the next week and get out a whole new set of explanations and guidelines, some of which were very different than what had been explained a few days earlier. So, Guidance, the building admin team, and eventually the district admin team met virtually for several hours over a couple different days (only to have to go back to the drawing board twice when the State sent out more directives and guidelines) to craft something that was measurable and meaningful. There were announcements that were interpreted as seniors having no further requirements, seniors being graded on pass/fail basis, and seniors only needing to take a daily attendance quiz in order to graduate.
    So, after several dozen tedious decisions about what it would take to graduate in general, school staff then turned to address class rank and other things that may impact scholarships and college admission status. This drove the decision to base those statistics on seven semesters instead of our historical eight semesters. Staff wanted to make sure that seniors’ next steps were not negatively impacted by what they anticipated to be the struggle many students would experience as part of an extended eLearning experience. Concerns of equity plagued their thoughts, for they knew the move to online learning would create an additional or at least amplified difference in student access to content through differences in internet quality and access, differences in students’ abilities to engage successfully in online learning versus in-class learning, and, yes, opportunities for some to commit academic dishonesty.
    As part of that discussion, they then addressed the question of Val/Sal. In essence, the discussion resulted in the conclusion that BHS always based those positions on eight semesters. Since they couldn't guarantee that this data would be valid or reliable in this situation and that to try to predict what MAY happen would be unfair to at least one if not more than one graduate, they opted to not name a Val/Sal. Instead, they would do more to recognize all the top graduates. Actually, more recognition than had been given the Val/Sal, historically. Herein, lies the second point of misinformation. There was never an intent to not recognize our high achieving students. In fact, there was and has been work on-going to allow for more media coverage of the top grads, including their class rank, than in previous years. BHS has always recognized Summa, Magna, and Cum Laude students during the commencement ceremony with cords and being asked to stand during the ceremony. This year the plan was to have more coverage outside the ceremony and over more media sources, particularly since the Academic Letter Banquet and Senior Scholarship Night were cancelled.
    Since then, there was an exchange of dialogue between the building administration and one top student and her family. Building administration displayed compassion, but felt the reasoning behind the decision was valid and the most equitable for all.  
    Now, fast forward to this week. The family of the one student concerned with this plan for 2019-2020 made a presentation to the school board during the public comment portion of the board meeting on May 12, 2020. At that board meeting it was shared that student recognition and awards is a duty of the administration. This is located in policy 5451. While the board was understanding of the frustration felt by the family, the resolution of the concern needed to be addressed at the building level.
    Since the board meeting many hurtful things have been said about the North Adams school district and members of the staff. That grieves me deeply. What started out as a plan to best serve ALL our students has been deliberately portrayed as a plan to harm our students despite above and beyond efforts of many staff to keep seniors on track to graduate, a commitment to try to hold out for the opportunity of a traditional commencement ceremony per seniors’ and parents’ wishes, and plans for a special commencement ceremony to honor those students who wouldn’t be in town in July to celebrate with the rest of the class.
    I have reviewed the processes that lead the high school staff to their decision, and I find nothing malicious or self-serving in the process that took place. Additionally, I’m not certain the requested plan truly honors the other students’ opportunities to earn their way to one of the top positions. It works for the two who were in those positions as of January, but doesn’t allow for the opportunity for shifts in positions that often happens in the last semester, particularly considering BHS weights grades. Because of that, I support the work that led to the decision that basically stated if we could not protect all the top students and their possible place in a final rank, then those two titles should not be awarded this year.
    That being said, in talking with high school staff, we feel we can offer an alternative that honors their concerns for equity for each of the potential top grads as well as the desire for the title of Val/Sal this student wants. If you cannot provide a level of equity for all, it is a solution to not offer the award. However, another solution is to reward each of the four contenders. The alternate will be four co-valedictorians in the class of 2020.
    In a year that is nothing close to normal, this solution recognizes the unprecedented times we are in, yet provides for some level of normalcy and tradition, though modified.