Pomp and Circumstances

A follow-up for a story from last week’s (19 May 2019, Premium only) issue. First, let’s start with the story:

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Starting next year, Mason (Ohio) High School will stop recognizing valedictorians and salutatorians at graduation time as part of a new initiative to “improve students’ mental wellness.” No really: “It’s about what it means to be happy and what it means to be successful,” says Associate Principal Shanna Bumiller, “and it’s not just about the grade but it’s about the whole child.” Principal Bobby Dodd concurs. “This will help reduce the overall competitive culture at MHS,” he said. (RC/WLWT Cincinnati) …So they’re getting rid of football next?

Football is a big deal at the school, though not to the exclusion of everything else. Let’s delve in.

Other Facilities

For instance, the school’s Drama Club performs two plays each school year, and is a member of the Cappies of Greater Cincinnati. Its winter 2009 play Noises Off won the Best Play Cappie. Its theater facilities include a complete auditorium, scene and costume shop, Green Room, and newly constructed black box theater space.

Mason High School. (Photo: the school district’s web site)

Music is a big deal too: they have six concert bands (concert white, green, silver, winds, symphonic band, and wind symphony), four orchestras, a Marching Band, Jazz Band, Pep Band, Chamber Strings, Winter Guard, Winter Percussion, and AP Music Theory. The Mason Band Program was awarded the John Philip Sousa Foundation Sudler Flag of Honor in 2008, and the John Philip Sousa Foundation Sudler Shield, the highest honor a marching band can receive. MHS is one of only 15 schools to ever receive both awards. In 2016, the marching band came in third in the nation at BOA Grand Nationals.

Now for Athletics

Mason was a charter member of the Fort Ancient Valley Conference from 1965-66 to 2006-07, and the Comets now play in the Greater Miami Conference. As of today, Mason has won the GMC All Sports Trophy for 12 consecutive years. Their athletic facilities include:

  • Dwire Field at Atrium Stadium has seating for 6,800 fans, a synthetic turf football field, 8-lane all-weather track, a Jumbotron scoreboard, three concession stands, and two press boxes.
  • Mason Arena for basketball. Seating for 3,200 (with an auxiliary gym that seats 1,000), center-court scoreboard, four corner scoreboards.
  • Multipurpose Field for soccer and lacrosse. Seating for 1,240, synthetic turf.
  • Natatorium (indoor swimming pool). Seating for 600, 11 lanes, movable floor.
  • Softball Fields — three, including main stadium with permanent seating/brick facade.
  • Baseball Field (details not specified).
  • Tennis facilities include 16 hard courts with seating for 100.
  • And, to get the kids in shape for all of that, the Atrium Fitness Center — a “state-of-the-art” training and fitness center.

And the school administration worries about “the overall competitive culture at MHS” in academics?!

Apparently so.

Addressing the School

Reader Diane in Arkansas wrote to the school to lament the change, and forwarded me her letter — and the school’s response.

I don’t live in your state and perhaps it is not any of my business. However, I have read that you are eliminating the recognition of your top ranking students. The reason is that it will reduce the competitive nature that is at school. You know, students work hard to get good grades and should definitely receive recognition for their efforts.

Now I don’t know about your school, but do you have a football team? If so, I would imagine that the best players get recognized. They probably get awards, patches for their team jackets, and scholarships are made available for their performance. That definitely fosters competition. That should be what is eliminated. Most high school athletes don’t become famous professional players. But great performing scholars do become successful and well-paid adults.

I just don’t get it. You are there to teach kids how to think. Not to raise their hopes of becoming the next star player, professional athlete, multi-millionaire with more money than God. That is enough money to buy drugs and all the other vices that too much money brings. And so many athletes don’t get a good education if they are stars on the team. They get passes in their classes because the school wants a good team. So many of them end up in lousy jobs because they have missed a good education. On the other hand, they did make that great touchdown pass at that one game one time.

Just my thoughts. I feel that most schools are definitely on the wrong track. Like I said above, schools are there to teach kids how to think. Not to be taught how to pass the state exams. In my home state the exams were the Regents. I don’t know what they are called in your state.

Please rethink your proposed change. Recognize those kids who worked hard doing what they are supposed to be doing in school.

Sincerely, [full name redacted]

The School’s Response

Tracey Carson, the Public Information Officer for the school district, responded, and this is also published unedited:

Thanks for writing. Since you are not from Ohio, I thought it might be helpful to share a little about who we are in Mason, Ohio. We’re lucky to live in a community that highly values education. We’re the largest high school in the state of Ohio, and on Sunday we graduated 871 students. We are an innovative, diverse district w/ over 74 languages spoken by our students and their families.

Our kids are driven, and they work REALLY hard.
For example:
– 40% of our 2019 graduates have a GPA of 4.0 or higher
– Over 30 students have a perfect ACT score
– 25 National Merit Finalists in Class of 2019
– We’ve been named the All-Sport Champions in our conference for 12 straight years straight
– Our high school Marching Band consistently ranks as one of the top in the nation
– Our Science Olympiad Team is nationally ranked – and will be making it’s second back-to-back trip to nationals this year
– Our students give back in huge ways – giving 1000s of hours of service and raising $100s of $1000s of dollars each year for others in need

We’re intensely proud of our students’ accomplishments. But, there’s another side of being a high achieving district that is very real – and very concerning. We’ve had a disturbing number of students who have increasing levels of anxiety, depression & suicidal ideation. Our students have been begging us to do something. In fact, our students leave Mason and say college isn’t nearly the pressure cooker that high school was.

We also had colleges coming to us and sharing that our GPAs didn’t make sense – as students “added on” weights from all those AP and College Credit Plus classes they were taking we had GPAs in the 6’s and even 7s. With that in mind, we knew we needed to “right-size” our GPA calculation to make sure we weren’t hurting our students as they applied for college. As we move to capping the GPA at a 5.0, we recognized we could end up with 100 valedictorians, and that it would be better to simply move to recognizing academic honors using the Latin system.

Over the last year, we’ve had over 50 community conversations – and at nearly every one people have asked us to do SOMETHING about the unhealthy competition. So, we’re making a series of moves to help create well-rounded students who aren’t just looking to chase a “magic” number or score, but are actually able to pursue learning they are interested in and that prepares them for life and to be positive contributors to our global economy.

Again, thanks for sharing your feedback and allowing us to give a little more context to this important decision.

Yes, that’s verbatim, right down to the “12 straight years straight”!

The stadium, it seems, at least doubles as a great spot to hold graduation! The class of 2019. (Photo: school district’s Facebook page)

Not explained: “recognizing academic honors using the Latin system.” Their plan is to designate students with a GPA (grade point average) of 4.00 and above as summa cum laude; students with a GPA between 3.75 and 3.99 will be designated magna cum laude; and students with a GPA from 3.51 to 3.74 will be designated cum laude. Those designations do help students with their college applications.

Still, the bottom line is, what was the “SOMETHING” they did to reduce “the unhealthy competition” evident in the school?

Well, they sure couldn’t touch an athletics program like that, could they?

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10 Comments on “Pomp and Circumstances

  1. 40% with a GPA of 4.0 or more? What do their average students get? B+? What do grades even mean with those kinds of numbers?

    I’ve been reading a lot of discussion of the new SAT score for measuring adversity being given to college admissions applications and what I keep reading is people saying that the tests shouldn’t matter, just high school GPA. I’ve read of schools eliminating the F altogether. Lowering a D grade to below 40% instead of 60%. Or getting rid of grades altogether.

    But when kids can “graduate” from high school and yet be functionally illiterate and have trouble with simple addition and subtraction … I just don’t get it. It’s as though having that piece of paper, all by itself, is supposed to magically create the life that an educated high school graduate used to be able to get. Now we’re extending the same reasoning to college. Got to get that magic piece of paper that will guarantee you the good life from there on out.

    Where does it go next?

  2. Consider that the Bell Curve applies to many circumstances and look at these GPAs logically. Take the GPAs of the typical graduating class and place them on a Bell Curve. In most cases 50% will be somewhere above average, the remaining 50% below. I have to agree with Diane: “40% with a GPA of 4.0 or more? What do their average students get? B+? What do grades even mean with those kinds of numbers?”

    When I graduated from high school, all athletes were required to carry a C average in ALL classes and the classes were not “dumbed down” for them to keep that average. Everyone in my graduating class could read and do basic math, had some understanding of history and social sciences, etc. That should be the goal and pride of every school. Certainly sports, music, arts, and more are important and help with college admissions, but that must not be the primary objective of high school. What cymbals player has a shot at using that skill to acquire gainful employment?

  3. My HS graduation class off 300+ had four 4.0 students. All were acknowledged, but one was selected to speak as Valedictorian. None of us (Yes, I was one but didn’t speak) had a problem with this.

    If you have that many top students, either your criteria are too low/watered-down, or you are doing a great job. If the former, fix it; if the latter, celebrate, don’t quash it!

    Competition itself is not the cause of stress, depression, or suicide. Unrealistic expectations — trying to force kids into education or career paths they are not suited for — are. Parents, as well as educators, need to recognize each child is different, and help them explore what goals and learning styles are best for the child — not the the parent’s dreams, not the system’s convenience.

  4. I see a difference in the sports teams and arts teams and the competition. There are two main differences. The first is that the ‘teams’ compete as a unit for the benefit of the school. Though there is internal competition, the goal is the success of the whole. The second item is that GPA (and therefore valedictorian) is a continuous ‘competition’ for the ‘championship’. Though sports teams have cumulative records, and GPA may be a valuable footnote, it doesn’t seem to be the best measure concerning academic success.

    GPA is affected by which classes are taken, therefore valuable classes that don’t award the most points may be avoided. There are many things that may affect a student’s grade over the course of four years. A student may be sick the night before a test, may have problems at home, may have longer term medical or other problems that affect the ability to get the top grade day in and day out. But students that may not get the highest grade every unit for four years may have learned the most. There are many other areas of academic achievement and competition which still exist (and more can even be created).

    I believe that having students work together to get the most ‘summa cum laude’ students as possible is a better model than the potential of them working against each other (or without each other) to achieve the top GPA.

    • There is also a difference between sports teams. Football, basketball and baseball are definitely team sports.

      All the others are team sports too but sports like tennis, wrestling and track are much more individual sports and competition than team sports. Science Olympiad has quite a bit of individual competition also.

  5. The simple fact is that in most of the country, a school district could eliminate reading instruction and not provoke much public comment, but it they eliminate football, there would be rioting in the streets. The focus on athletics is a parent-generated issue, not a school-generated one.

    In any event, this particular school clearly is an academic powerhouse. Thirty perfect ACT scores and twenty-five National Merit Finalists in the class of 2019? That’s absolutely stunning.

    Given their concentration of high-performing students, the “Latin system” actually makes sense. It recognizes academic excellence, while at the same time relieving the pressure that many top students feel to be THE top student. Over the years I taught Advanced Placement classes, I saw the effects that pressure had many times, and it is destructive — dangerously so for some kids.

    Bottom line: This school is not prioritizing athletics over academics; they are excellent in both. Context makes a difference, and in context, what they’re doing makes sense.

  6. Why are y’all assuming the 40% with a 4.0 GPA or more means they’re dumbing things down? They might have that much of their student population turning in perfect or near-perfect work, plus special projects.

    When I was a student, the good teachers were able to guide everyone who tried into EARNING decent GPAs, without dumbing things down for anyone. The classes where folks struggled had teachers who were terrible at communicating their expectations or instructing their material.

  7. Grades used to be calculated with a bell curve. Most students get a C. A B or D is somewhat above or below. A and F are the outliers. As curricula changes, the grades get re-normed, but a C is an *average* grade to which other grades are compared. If you combine that with the reputation of the school, you can pretty much read off a person’s academic ability.

    But it’s a mistake to think that everyone is looking for that perfect 4.0 when it comes to hiring. Many companies don’t *want* those students. They’re looking for the solid B. They believe the 4.0s would get bored with everyday tasks quickly and not want to stay. Other companies, like Bell Labs wouldn’t even talk to anyone with a GPA of less than 3.6. They are both right for their needs.

    If a high schooler wants to get into MIT, they better have the 4.0 grades & the SAT scores and still need to pass a rigorous interview. Very few are really qualified for MIT. But how is MIT supposed to differentiate between a 4.0 here and a 4.0 there and a 4.0 somewhere else if 4.0 doesn’t actually mean that the student is a high achiever outlier. They have to ignore the grades more and rely more on tests. Yet the tests themselves are under attack.

    I still liked my Prof for Electromagnetic Phenomena. On the first day of class, he was doing the regular overview and as he was winding down someone asked what the curve was. He said, “There isn’t one. Five years from now, you are going to be designing the elevators I’m riding in. These are my standards.” Between that and the first Calculus Prof who said, “I don’t care how you get the answer as long as it’s right.” I knew I was going to make it. 🙂

  8. Despite the one grammatical error (probably a type-o), I thought the school’s response was well thought out & reasonable. I was actually impressed that a school put that much though into a change in program.

    When you have an excellent school like this (clearly, since they are nationally ranked in several areas), the academic students are competing against each other for the 3rd and 4th decimal places of GPA.

    I generally do not agree with schools reducing or eliminating academic merits, but this sounds like a win-win situation & I commend them.

  9. It’s been a while since I retired, but I used to be one of the interviewers for a Fortune 500 company. We interviewed for college interns for the summer and for new hires right out of college. Most often we were much more likely to hire someone with a B grade average who was also active in multiple clubs, sports, charitable and other outside activities than someone who had a 4.0 with no extra activities. The B students, in general, were more well rounded, better team players and better at problem solving than those who only had only top grades. The ones we really loved were the A students who also had a lot of activities, but there weren’t many of them. Our process was thorough enough that many of our interns became full time employees after graduation and I can’t remember any new hire we had to let go. And, yes, it was a competitive environment.


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