This year’s Sentinel and Hellgate high school seniors could be some of the last to receive the title of valedictorian in response to a debate about what merits a school’s highest honor.

Currently, seniors at the two schools who have a 4.0 grade-point average are named valedictorian, but the title and specifications for earning it are misleading, said Heather Davis Schmidt, Missoula County Public Schools’ executive director for Region 2.

Valedictorian by its definition is to name the school’s single most academically successful student – not a group of top students, Davis Schmidt said, adding the schools are using inaccurate vocabulary.

Eleven students have received the title of valedictorian this year at Hellgate, while 89 students will wear gold robes denoting them as having received a 3.5 GPA or higher.

At Sentinel, 15 valedictorians were named this year, with 66 students earning honor cords to wear during commencement for having GPAs of 3.5 or higher.

Seeley-Swan High School designates only one valedictorian.

A districtwide student recognition advisory committee of parents, teachers and principals began meeting last fall to examine student recognition practices at each grade level.

The group found that having multiple valedictorians and salutatorians isn’t accurate and recommended that, beginning with next year’s freshmen, high schools follow a modified version of a system that has been in place at Big Sky High School, which awards Eagle Medallions for achievement.

Roughly 10 percent to 15 percent of Big Sky’s graduating class receives the medallions each year.

Competitive colleges are more apt to admit a student who has taken rigorous courses and has a slightly lower GPA than a student who took general classes and earned a 4.0, Sentinel principal Tom Blakely said.

The current system doesn’t recognize the distinction, and several years ago students brought the discrepancy to school administrators’ attention, Blakely said.

For the past year, leaders at the school have worked to create a new system that would be more reflective of the type of student achievement that colleges want, he said.

Students would take a pledge to take a minimum of five advanced courses, maintain a 3.92 GPA and take three years of a foreign language.

Community service and participation in extracurricular activities or clubs also would be required.

“We’re not decreasing the number of recipients. Our belief is that we’re increasing the number of recipients,” Blakely said, adding that all of this year’s valedictorians would have received a medallion.

Schools will continue discussing options through the fall, and could opt to use something similar to the Big Sky system of recognition, or they could choose to use a proper definition and determination of valedictorian and salutatorian, Davis Schmidt said.

However, a choice to keep a valedictorian and salutatorian would require schools choose only one student for each honor, she said.

Seeley-Swan also could decide to change its current system, or to add a medallion system, she added.

The potential changes would recognize exemplary achievements by well-rounded students while not using misleading terminology, Davis Schmidt said.

“Be open-minded – the process is still in its infancy,” she added.

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Reporter Alice Miller can be reached at 523-5251 or at alice.miller@missoulian.com.

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