gangs all here lets give a cheer, give a cheer for Sexton
High, we will keep that name a symbol here.
Its a song of good times and innocence, the cheer of the
west side Lansing high school built a few miles away from the
one-room, wooden schoolhouse where classes were first held in
1847. But theres a hushed controversy that kept the class
of 2002 from hearing any valedictorian speeches at Saturdays
graduation ceremony at the Breslin Center, and that leaves graduating
seniors feeling anything but innocent. High school is no shelter
from the tooth-and-claw competition that awaits them in the
real world, once the rites of passages of graduation
wereover. This year, there were no songs at commencement.
It all began in April 2001. Two top female students in their
junior year had perfect grade point averages until they were
told theyd receive B+ grades in their chemistry class.
The girls had worked their butts off since first grade,
ones mother told City Pulse, and did not deserve to lose
their valedictorian status because of a single B+. Both of the
students were African-American. Could this be a situation of
racism? After the intervention of their parents, who had good
contacts with district officials, the girls were allowed to
repeat the chemistry class as an independent study. That decision
frustrated students, who felt the two students had been given
a chance not available to everyone. Sexton Highs principal,
Clyde Carnegie, worked to resolve things quietly. But the valedictorian
controversy frustrated students, who wrote letters to City Pulse
and other local media, asking them to report on the story.
They tried hard to sweep things under the carpet,
remembers T.J. Adams, who graduated in 2001. But the students
had important questions: Was it all about learning or making
the grade? Were the best students the ones with the most active
parents? Did the low ratio of African-American valedictorians
suggest reverse racism? This year the girls were the only black
valedictorians in a predominantly African-American high school.
all hell broke loose one day, describes one student.
The accused teacher signed a grievance process with the teachers
union for grade changes that occurred without her approval.
City Pulse learned of the district administrations resulting
60-page document (whose existence school officials later refused
to confirm). Students whispered and argued about the case. Some
even openly booed the two students. Many dont even
look at our daughters as true valedictorians. They simply think
their grades were changed, said Toni Armstrong, the mother
of one of them.
It was in the middle of these arguments among peers that Armstrongs
daughter was asked to give a speech at a 3.5 GPA honors
banquet in May. But, her parents said, the young woman became
a target of criticism from her peers. Finally my daughter
refused to speak, because the emotional pressure was much too
high, remembers Armstrong. And sadly, because of this
she lost the $500 speaker payment.
Valedictorians receive even more money: an equal share of scholarship
funds from a pot totaling roughly $10,000. Additionally, valedictorians
receive a big leg up for college admission and scholarships.
A 2001 Sexton valedictorian, Samara Webb was awarded a full
scholarship to Hope College and $200,000 for postgraduate work
In the spring I planned to write a letter to the district,
because what happened just didnt seem right to me,
remembers one of this years valedictorians. The
girls were purposely playing their minority card, although our
chemistry teacher is far from being racist. Nobody understood
why they were allowed to take an independent study course, since
this was usually allowed only when class hours conflicted with
normal schedules. After I read the schools guidelines
twice, I really felt I had to get this off my chest. What
kept him from writing the letter was that in April the
girls mothers came to our class. One girl pointed me out
and called me little Chinese boy. In front
of the teacher and class she referred to another valedictorian
student as that white girl. No disciplinary actions
were taken. Rather than writing the letter, the student decided
to just wait until this ridiculous experience was
over and to move onto college in the fall.
Because of the ongoing controversy, no valedictorian was allowed
to address the graduating class last Saturday, in fear of angering
more people. I was kind of looking forward to giving a
speech, as my aunt is coming from Texas and other relatives
from California, said one. The whole story left a bitter
taste in his mouth. I dont think I want to return
to Lansing very soon again.
The Scandal That Wasnt There
Although Sexton High School students criticized the districts
policy of sweeping things under the carpet, the
grown-ups concerned about the two students in question
and about the bad press pretended there was nothing to
report. Theres no controversy, they told City
Pulse. The principal, Clyde Carnegie, denied comment. One would
probably have to ask the Human Resources Department,
he said. The schools head counselor, Aubrey Radcliffe,
wouldnt talk either. And the school districts media
spokesman, Mark Mayes, didnt even see that there
is a case, I wouldnt even call it an investigation.
The accused chemistry teacher couldnt comment for fear
of losing her job. It seems like we have a case of the scandal
that wasnt there. There was a disagreement over
a grade and students were allowed to take the class over
again on a independent study basis, Mayes said.
Larry Mc Queen, the teacher advocate at the Michigan Education
Association, is still waiting for the investigation report from
the district, the report which officially doesnt exist.
What we believe has occurred is that the school district,
contrary to the contract, has altered the mathematical impact
of the teachers assigned grades - and this has been taken
to arbitration. The unionist also represents a Sexton
math teacher whose grades would have also endangered the valedictorian
status of one girl.
The student was failing the second semester of Advanced Placement
Calculus, a class designed to prepare students to take the AP
test, to gain credit for lower level college math classes. Her
status was changed to an audit, something unheard of. It
became clear that the instructor was not notified of this and
was forced to go along for the ride, remembers another
student in the class. This made another young woman whod
lost her perfect GPA in this class very upset. She requested
to audit the calculus class but was not allowed, even though
she had more credit hours of As than any other student. Does
the reader, like the journalist, worry that the atmosphere of
heated competition in Lansings school system might not
be healthy for its students?
would blame the entire situation on the principal, Dr. Carnegie,
says another graduating senior. Hes allowing these
two girls to maintain a 4.0, which helps the image of our school,
a minority school. Fifty-five percent of Sexton High Schools
students are African American. Rates at Eastern (25 percent)
and Everett (38 percent) high schools are lower. None of the
students City Pulse spoke with, half a dozen of whom were African-American,
considered the teacher to be racist.
I had no idea that the valedictorian thing would create
so much tension, says Toni Armstrong, the mother. Is
it a racial issue or is it not? Would all of this controversy
have been raised if they werent black? It makes me wonder.
She explains how the parents tried to resolve the problem without
making a big scene. Thats why instead of formally appealing
the grade (which would take the two girls out of valedictorian
status) they chose to deal with the principal, to leave
the teacher alone, and try to fix the problem without ruining
her reputation. Armstrong concedes if she could have foreseen
the tension maybe we should have just asked for a hearing.
The second students mother confirms that she also wanted
to resolve the case with the principal together with the districts
superintendent, E. Sharon Banks. She criticized the chemistry
teachers indifference toward two high-achieving African-American
students. She knew that they were on a valedictorian track,
she knew that theyd received nothing but As and this was
the first B theyve ever received. The mother also
blamed the chemistry teacher for changing her grading system
to a bell curve method - which is supposed to help weaker students
pass by raising the bar. However, within this grading system
the girls extra-credit points were now worth less. She
cant just institute a new form of grading halfway into
the year. I know that. Im a teacher.
Another graduating senior adds that until the valedictorian
controversy, hed never seen district officials at the
high school. Now, with the investigation, they were everywhere.
Hed also seen one of the two girls grandmothers
step in. The grandmother, Jacqueline Warr, was the secretary
of the school districts Board of Education. Warr declined
comment. And Armstrong believes there should be more parents
involved in their childrens education.
Making the Grade
A recent study of the National Center for Education Statistics
shows that parents have a strong influence on their kids
high school performance as well as their later academic careers.
Therefore, examining parents education in relation
to students behaviors and academic experiences as they
plan and prepare for college during high school may produce
insights into how the influence of parents education might
be reduced, concludes the report, Students Whose
Parents Did Not Go to College. The author, Susan Choy,
suggests rethinking the entire financial aid policies, to focus
more on parents educational backgrounds, instead of simply
offering some scholarship monies to minority and low-income
groups. As parents education increases, so does students
likelihood of enrolling in post-secondary education. Of 1,992
high school graduates whose parents did not go to college, 59
percent enrolled in some form of post-secondary education in
1994. The enrollment rate increased to 75 percent among those
whose parents had some college experience, and to 93 percent
among those whose parents had at least a bachelors degree.
Its the educational backgrounds, its not the
money, confirms Aubrey Radcliffe, head counselor at Sexton
High School. Concerned parents are seen quite frequently in
the limestone building at 102 McPherson. Many of them work for
the state government, explains Radcliffe. We have a strong
middle class background here. According to 2001 data,
Sexton ranks first in terms of academic excellence. One in 18
students exceeded Michigan standards in math, reading, science
or writing, while at Everett its one in 26, and at Eastern
one in 25.
High School seniors wait in line to receive their diplomas
at the Breslin Center. The first seven on the right were
this years valedictorians.
a consequence it seems unsurprising that the state Department
of Educations accountability plan for a more competitive
public school system Education YES! A Yardstick
for Excellent Schools was unveiled at Sexton in
December 2001. The proposal aimed at improving schools and closing
achievement gaps, was a direct response to complaints from parents
and the business community for greater school accountability.
Starting in 2003, principals will have three years to adjust
to the new accreditation standards before the first official
grades are handed out in 2006, and annually thereafter. Three-quarters
of the school accountability grade will be based on the scores
of students taking the Michigan Education Assessment Program
Test. The rest will be based on factors such as parental involvement,
professional development, school attendance and drop out rates.
Such a program may do little to dispel growing tensions among
students trying to make the grade, made visible during this
years grade change controversy at Sexton.
A stricter evaluation of school achievement may rather reinforce
the unhealthy struggle for better grades, as grants take mainly
GPA figures into account. The Michigan Merit Award Program provides
merit scholarships to high school graduates with a high qualifying
score on the MEAP test. Last year, 87 Eastern, 85 Everett and
68 Sexton high school graduates received the prestigious award,
a success rate that is about the same in relation to the three
schools enrollment figures. In addition, there is also
the National Merit Scholarship Program. This years three
Lansing high school students are in the final running for 8,000
Merit Scholarships, worth more than $32 million. Three other
Lansing students are finalists in the National Achievement Scholarship
Program, an academic competition for black high school students.
They are in the final group applying for 700 Achievement Scholarships
worth a total of $2.5 million.
It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the progressive French 18th century
educational philosopher, who sent each of his kids to an orphanage,
because he couldnt pay for their schooling. Rousseaus
educational theories had a large influence on predecessors,
who would demand that the state should provide free education
for every citizen. Its questionable whether Rousseau would
have had more choices for his children were he living in the
United States today and trying to send them to college. Its
a huge investment today to produce a successful child. Annual
tuition at Lansing Community College is $1,576. With the recent
tuition hike, an instate college freshman can expect to pay
$5,666 to attend Michigan State University. Harvard carries
the hefty bill of $24,630. And we havent even mentioned
room and board or expenses for travel and books. Students
educations are like everything else in a competitive market
(i.e. automobiles, restaurants, clothing): Price dictates quality.
The Broader Picture
Most of the students City Pulse spoke with were fed up with
the shameful fact that the incident happened in front
of hundreds of other students, faculty and administrators and
yet nothing was said or done, as one young man put it.
The fight over grades, and the competitive culture at a school,
with high failure rates for freshman created unnecessary pressures
and frustrations, another source told. The principals
effort to avoid any public debate about the scandal at Sexton
thus led many students to experience a totally screwed
up graduation. Even the fact that no student speakers
were allowed during commencement turned into a small scandal,
because students said the principal misinformed student representatives
that none of the other district schools had student speakers
either. Both Everett and Eastern high schools didnt see
any reason to interrupt the tradition of letting their valedictorians
speak to the audience at Breslin Center. As soon as his senior
year ended in 2001, T.J. Adams left Lansing because of
hypocrisies such as this. Frustrated about the superficiality
of the grade scandal that spring, he went to Brazil for a Summer
Missionary Apprenticeship. He decided not to attend his own
graduation so much of a farce it had become.
There shall be no dissent in Middletown and our town,
our industries and public utilities, and our ways of doing things
shall be accepted uncritically as right. If conditions of national
and local strain continue even moderately sharp, Middletowns
forward-looking teachers will either tone down their
teaching or conceivably be quietly removed. Your City
Pulse reporter takes this quote from Robert and Helen Lynds
sociological study of a close-knit, midwestern industry town
published back in 1937. Teachers anxiously seek the backing
of their union representatives; the economy and society is changing,
and principals no longer seem fully responsible or able to control
what happens inside their schools, though they try to keep a
firm grip. Perhaps in this respect not much has changed. Today
however, the pressures of small town and big city (BIG WORLD)
are merging. When small town folks want to keep a secret, they
refer you to their press speaker.
Across America today, some school districts have gotten rid
of the old-fashioned valedictorian tradition. Since 1999 many
top high school students in the Washington, D.C., area are no
longer recognized with this title for their hard work and diligence.
Area schools simply abolished the tradition of naming valedictorians
and salutatorians. Two reasons are feelings of inadequacy among
lower-performing students and an unhealthy competitiveness between
students. In 1993, the Montgomery County Board of Education
passed a resolution saying that high schools no longer had to
report student grade rankings to colleges. As a result, many
county high school administrators interpreted the policy to
mean they should not honor valedictorians. Therefore, theyve
dropped their honors program. Most of the countys high
schools do not honor individual valedictorians, believing colleges
care more about which classes students take and less about their
weighted grade point averages. In Fairfax County,
Va., Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology
(one of the countrys top schools) has also dropped its
valedictorian tradition. To sort out people at the top,
we would have to deal with hundredths of decimal points, and
that seems not productive to us, explained Shirley Bloomquist,
the schools guidance director.
I guess the whole valedictorian tradition needs to be
changed, comments Toni Armstrong thoughtfully. Although
shed successfully fought for her own daughter to remain
on the list, she now feels sad about the fact that there werent
any student speeches at graduation. Why cant salutatorians
speak? It could be anybody, a wonderful story of childs
challenges in his or her life at high school!
It was a lackluster graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 15.
The principal listlessly read out each students name.
Graduates seemed only welcome to fetch their diplomas and quickly
leave the show.
No students gave speeches. The grown-ups exchanged a few wise
phrases, like Malcolm Xs famous quote, Education
is your passport to the future. But these were read bookishly,
in weighted air. Nobody mentioned what had caused the 14-month
turmoil at the public school, although attentive listeners sought
clues of it as the Sexton Area Director Diana Rouse spoke. Ive
gotten to know many of you in the last year. Weve grown
to love and respect each other. It was only when Mrs.
Rouse announced her regards to your retiring principal,
that the student body applauded enthusiastically.
Dr. Clyde Carnegie had been the Principal at Sexton for 22 years.
Too bad he had to end his career as the man who kept things
under control. Too bad about the scandal that wasnt there,
the important questions swept under the rug. In his speech,
Carnegie praised those who had demonstrated leadership,
unaware that his muzzle had weakened that spirit of leadership
and purpose, in this silent crowd of graduating seniors
the exhausted class of 2002.