By Elizabeth F. McNamara

East Greenwich High School is looking to upend the long-time practice of picking the two seniors with the highest GPAs as valedictorian and salutatorian, replacing it with an application process, starting for the Class of 2023 (this year’s 8th graders). Together with that, the school would stop using weighted GPAs – those that give extra points for honors and AP course work.

The changes are an attempt to de-escalate the competitive, stress-driven system now in place.  

“It’s not that what we’re doing now is wrong. It’s that I think we can do it better,” said Principal Mike Podraza in a recent interview. “What we’re hearing from students who are stressed is, they’re making decisions based on the impact to their GPA, not about what they’re interested in, not what they’re curious about.”

East Greenwich High School

In terms of what colleges are looking for, Podraza said there are a lot of different approaches. Some look at unweighted GPA, some don’t. Some look at core subject grades, some look at what electives a student has taken.

“We can’t create a perfect system that works with each college,” he said. “What is our moral compass telling us? We want students to be intrinsically motivated. We want students to be interested. So, we see the weighted GPA interfering with that and that’s something we have control over.”

These changes need the approval of the School Committee. Podraza outlined his proposals at the School Committee meeting Dec. 4, and the panel will take it up again at their meeting Tuesday, Dec. 18.

Podraza stressed these changes would not affect current EGHS students. In terms of GPA, the school already sends both weighted and unweighted GPAs to colleges. For the Class of 2023, the school would only calculate unweighted GPAs.

Barrington High School, against which EGHS is often compared, does not use weighted GPA and it also does not chose graduation speakers by GPA ranking (as in valedictorian and salutatorian).

What Podraza is looking to do for graduation speakers is to have a committee of faculty and students chose graduation speakers based on applications submitted by those students interested in speaking.

“There are lots of students with powerful things to say,” he said.

Under Podraza’s proposal, one graduation speaker would be chosen by the faculty members of the committee, one would be chosen by the students on the committee, and a third speaker would be chosen by the whole committee.

With one extra student speaker, Podraza acknowledged that the graduation ceremony might need some reorganizing, in terms of the number of speakers or length of speeches. The fact that EGHS has, essentially, two special graduation ceremonies –graduation itself but also Ivy Day, a ceremony for seniors on the Friday before graduation – could help with that.

“Between those two days, there’s some room to evolve,” he said.

Instead of only two students being singled out for academic achievement, under the proposed changes, EGHS would adopt the collegiate cum laude honor system, with students in the top GPA range achieving the summa cum laude distinction and students in a tier below that achieving the magna cum laude distinction.

“We’re not throwing GPA out, we still value GPA, we still value students academic success as measured by GPA,” Podraza said. Cum laude designation would be given to all students who have demonstrated learning – “regardless of subject matter, regardless of what the class is called, or even if a certain discipline offers AP courses.”

In other words, a student who gets high grades but is not taking AP or honors courses will still be eligible for the cum laude designation.

Podraza rejected the suggestion this could be viewed as the academic equivalent of “trophy for all.” 

“I see our students working hard. I would challenge people who say that to take a look at the accomplishments of our students and tell me which one of these accomplishments don’t deserve to be recognized, don’t deserve high accolades and praise.”

Ultimately, he said, “We are looking to devise a system to be more geared toward the outcome of learning.”

The School Committee will take up the EGHS Program of Studies for 2019-20 – including these changes – at their meeting Tuesday, Dec. 18, 7 p.m. in the library at Cole Middle School.

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