Senior Mason Westervelt knew he was out of the running to be valedictorian for the Gillette high school Class of 2020 the second he received a B in one of his advanced placement classes.
But it was the experience of another senior — the “smartest person I know” — who ranks No. 2 in the class at Thunder Basin High School who recently drove him to ask Campbell County School District trustees to change the valedictorian and salutatorian standards to a weighted scale.
That would return both Campbell County High School and Thunder Basin to each name just one valedictorian and one salutatorian for each graduating class.
Westervelt, 17, reasoned that the change would result in more competition and more seniors taking Advanced Placement, or AP classes, which are nationally recognized for their rigor and are graded on a weighted grading scale.
He suggested the benefit and appreciation of learning in those classes for students has been essentially subverted by the need to meet the current academic standards for high honors.
Ultimately, he said, the change would be felt in Campbell County’s and Wyoming’s pocketbooks because more students would go on to earn college degrees and make more money in their careers as a result. That would mean higher revenues from taxes.
That might seem a stretch, but for the Thunder Basin speech and debate team member, it makes perfect sense. Whether it does for others — including top students at area high schools and their families — is not a certainty. Even the principal Westervelt quoted in support of his appeal to the school board is against the change.
He’d prefer to see all students who achieve academic success get the recognition they deserve for their hard work, not just two students in each class.
“I like to err on the side of the kids,” said CCHS Principal Chad Bourgeois.
How did this start?
Whether the system is changed, the debate is food for thought.
Do the multiple valedictorians and salutatorians for each school erode the meaning behind the high honors?
Campbell County High School used a weighted scale until the turn of the century in 2000, when it tried a hybrid weighted scale that recognized 10 valedictorians that year. There were no salutatorians.
“CCHS wanted a way to honor more of its top students,” explained a story in The New Record that year.
While there were 10 students who topped the graduating class, their GPAs varied from 4.670 for No. 1 Kelly Bennett to No. 10 Tessa Peters at 4.513, just over 0.10 of a point.
In 2001, the standard changed again to three valedictorians, who had to earn a 4.0 and take at least one AP class. The 27 salutatorians had to carry at least a 3.9 GPA.
By 2002, the same standards as those still used today (two AP classes for valedictorians and one for salutatorians with the same GPAs) were in place for the four valedictorians and 18 salutatorians for that class.
There are now multiple students who qualify to be valedictorians and salutatorians each year from Gillette high schools.
Some have compared it to youth sports programs where every kid gets a trophy at the end of the season. Whether that devalues the achievement depends on who you talk to.
In March 2006, district officials decided to look at ways to add rigor to the standards, starting with the next freshman or ninth-grade class.
“We want to re-examine (the selection process) to see if we can maybe make it a little more strenuous,” explained then-guidance counselor Tom Holm.
It was fine-tuned to accept only AP class completions and not just any college course.
That revision took effect in 2010. The basic rule of GPAs and requiring one or two AP classes to become a valedictorian or salutatorian has been in place, in some form, the past 19 years.
That’s led to a parade of seniors earning the coveted academic honors. Efforts to revisit the issue have cropped up from time to time.
Two decades, 468 salutatorians
Over the past 20 years, there have been 135 valedictorians and 468 salutatorians recognized in Gillette. There have been more than 8,000 high school graduates over that same time period.
The highest number of valedictorians in a single year was 13, an achievement that first happened in 2007, then again in 2012 and 2013.
As for salutatorians, the high for one year is 38 in 2006. There have been 30 or more salutatorians in four graduating classes over the past two decades, including 30 last year in the second graduating class at Thunder Basin.
“To me, it really speaks volumes of a class,” Bourgeois said.
Holm said much the same in 2006.
“They have earned this right and that’s highly commendable,” he said. “They’ve gone above and beyond what other students have done and I admire them for that. They’ve stuck to their guns, no matter what, and done what they had to do.”
Westervelt doesn’t see it quite the same way. He spoke of the embarrassment of explaining to a prospective college official why you’re a salutatorian yet rank 54th in your class.
“I believe all the benefits of changing to a weighted scale and having one valedictorian and one salutatorian completely outweigh any harm in that,” he said.
It’s an A or else
As it is, any hopeful valedictorian in Gillette knows that any grade below an A, including an A-, will sink their efforts, which is what brought Westervelt to the school board to seek a change.
His friend and classmate Christopher Richter ranks second in his class at Thunder Basin this school year, but he is out of the running for valedictorian because of a B-plus he earned in an AP English course a year ago.
“I was kind of disappointed,” Richter said of his shock and realization at the time. “I lost motivation.”
That, Westervelt said, is patently unfair. As he has talked to Westervelt about the standards, Richter has been convinced his classmate is right.
“Classes with the college should count,” he said. “A lot of kids don’t think it’s about learning. They think it’s about who earns it.”
“Having dozens of salutatorians and valedictorians interferes with competitiveness,” Westervelt told the school board. “I’m disturbed by the fact that other students, such as myself, who have taken as many AP and college classes as available, are promptly denied the opportunity of becoming a valedictorian or salutatorian after receiving a few Bs in AP classes when it appears they have gone above and beyond what is expected.”
It may be imperfect, said Bourgeois, who has been a principal under both systems of standards. But he has no desire to change it.
TBHS Principal John “Gib” Ostheimer wasn’t available for comment this week.
Trustees directed Deputy Superintendent Kirby Eisenhauer and the principals to continue the discussion.
“We used to do that and it must have changed 10-12 years ago,” board chairwoman Anne Ochs told Westervelt. “Maybe you guys will get back to us as a board and if you have a good line of communication with Mr. Eisenhauer, he can kind of fill you in on why they changed it and where we are right now.”
“I can work with the principals,” said Eisenhauer, a former CCHS principal. “But just a note. We did not have a valedictorian at Campbell County High School last year.”
That’s because no student took the required two AP classes, but there were 10 salutatorians.
“So there’s a lot of thought that goes into that,” Eisenhauer said. “There is not a perfect system. Mr. Bourgeois would tell you that the system in Gillette is better than Buffalo.”
And he does say that.
It’s splitting hairs
Buffalo High School has a weighted grade-scale system that names only one valedictorian and salutatorian a year. That’s where Bourgeois served as principal before taking the job at CCHS last school year.
“Say one student has a 4.282 and the other a 4.284. Show me which one is better,” the principal said. “It’s splitting hairs it’s so minute.”
Two of the top students at CCHS, among the nine vying for valedictorian status in 2020, agree.
They see harm in a weighted grade scale, which they say is already in place for students who apply for scholarships through the Hathaway Scholarship program in Wyoming. But that is as far as they want to have it used.
They aren’t in favor of limiting local academic awards to fewer students. Doing so would deter more students from vying for academic honors, said CCHS students Tanner Gladson and Lauren Collins.
Gladson, 18, already has been accepted at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, in his quest to become a surgeon. It’s one of the nation’s most prestigious medical schools.
Collins, 17, is likely to be a valedictorian at CCHS.
She said she hopes to attend the University of Wyoming to study psychology and eventually become a psychologist. She hasn’t always dreamed of being a valedictorian.
“I had a B in fifth grade once,” the Gillette native jokingly admitted.
“I don’t know why I want to be a valedictorian. It’s just in my heart,” she said. “In ninth grade, I was not as sure I wanted to be a valedictorian. My grades were so close to an A-. I don’t know what happened. I can really be hard on myself.
“I tell myself, ‘Why don’t you be a teenager for once in your life?’”
Gladson admits to failing kindergarten, too. But the pair are driven to achieve. It’s in their DNA. They celebrate their own successes and revel in those of their peers.
“It might be better for one on a weighted scale, but it’s also good to have multiples,” Gladson said.
In fact, having just one possible valedictorian might change the relationship between classmates striving and competing for the coveted spots, Collins said.
“I like the way it is,” she said. “I like having multiples.”
The fact that more students are awarded for their academics “makes me even more proud,” Gladson said. “It’s not quite traditional, but I like it.”
“I think all the valedictorians want to be the valedictorian, but we should make it what’s best for everybody. If I get an A- in my last class, I still know in my heart what I’ve done.”
That speaks to what the awards are about. It’s local community recognition, something that reflects dedication, pride, meeting goals and achievement.
College officials don’t take into account whether you are a valedictorian or salutatorian, the two seniors point out. Most colleges accept students well before that’s even determined their senior year.
The last word
Westervelt likely won’t end his argument on the issue anytime soon. He plans to return to the school board with petitions signed by 100 juniors and 100 seniors at both Gillette high schools seeking a change in the standards.
That would add up to 400 other voices agreeing with him.
He also doesn’t think he’ll have any difficulty getting enough signatures — something he hopes to do sometime in April.
The argument of others not receiving recognition for their work if the standards change is something he acknowledges. “But there are immense benefits to this idea,” he said.
School board members lauded him for coming forward over what may be a timeless issue for high schools to deal with.
“I know some kids who have not taken AP classes because they don’t want to jeopardize their class position, right?” said trustee Ken Clouston. “So I think there’s a lot of valid points to what you’re saying.”
“It will be a good discussion for the board and the administration to have,” Ochs said.
“I spoke my mind about this,” Westerval said, feeling the trustees were receptive to his request.
He, like those seeking high academic honors in every graduating class in Gillette, is driven to succeed.