Anessa DeMers scored a perfect 36 on her ACT college entrance exam. Her grade-point average exceeds a perfect 4.0. But an imperfect system may keep her from becoming the Elk River High School class valedictorian.
While other area schools recognize several students at graduation ceremonies, Elk River High continues to have a lone valedictorian. It’s a practice that Superintendent Mark Bezek calls “archaic” — as outdated as the extinct mammals and dinosaurs DeMers plans to study when she enrolls at the University of Minnesota this fall.
DeMers, whose GPA is a hair below that of one other senior, is a “victim of the numbers game with grade points,” Bezek said. She was No. 1 in her class entering her senior year, but the other valedictorian candidate took more weighted courses, said Bezek. Those are courses in which students can get above a 4.0.
DeMers, with a GPA close to 4.1, studied German and played in the band, along with her other courses. There are no honors programs in the Elk River Area School District for German or playing the French horn.
“You have to plan your entire schedule around becoming valedictorian,” DeMers said of the lesson she has learned. “Once you decide to participate in the arts, you’re out of the running.
“It hurts, obviously,” said DeMers, whose sister, Mara, was valedictorian three years ago. “This system really has no relation to reality anymore.”
Having a valedictorian is a decision made by local school boards. The Minnesota Department of Education and Minnesota School Boards Association don’t keep records of which districts do so.
In the Minneapolis district, high schools decide individually the number of valedictorians recognized at graduation. But a number of metro-area districts — including Anoka-Hennepin, Eden Prairie, Edina, Minnetonka and Wayzata — abandoned choosing valedictorians years ago.
During graduation ceremonies, Wayzata is as likely to recognize someone with a full scholarship to West Point as the student with the highest GPA. St. Louis Park recognized five “valedictorians” last year. St. Paul schools recognize 10 or more students. At Eden Prairie, students with GPAs of 3.5 and above are honored with different-colored tassels representing achievement.
What colleges want
Being selected class valedictorian is an attention grabber, for sure, but it rarely sways college admissions personnel, because a student usually is named valedictorian long after his or her application has been reviewed.
When Macalester College submits applicant requirements to college guides, it purposely remains vague about desired GPA scores. St. Olaf and Carleton colleges take a similar approach, preferring to examine the total package.
“Being a valedictorian does turn your head, but a grade-point average is just a number,” said Jeff McLaughlin, St. Olaf’s dean of admissions and financial aid.
At the University of St. Thomas, admissions personnel want students who are “a good fit” and treat applicants with comparable scores equally, regardless of honors, said Marla Friederichs, associate vice president for admissions and financial aid.
“By itself, a GPA, or being valedictorian is not the critical determining factor,” said Paul Thiboutot, Carleton vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid.
Try convincing the families of students who have spent years — in some cases, before high school — with a valedictorian dream.
Had the potential
DeMers, who will study paleontology and has earned a healthy scholarship to the University of Minnesota, knew she had the potential to become class valedictorian. It’s in her genes.
Her sister, who is studying mycology at the U, not only was valedictorian, but also scored a perfect 36 on the ACT exam.
Their father, Robert DeMers, works in avionics at Honeywell. Yes, he’s a rocket scientist. And their mother, Sue Lavenz, runs Stable Living, a stable and riding school in Nowthen.
It was Lavenz who encouraged both daughters to take piano lessons “because music is good for your brain.” In addition to playing the French horn in the school band, Anessa DeMers also plays cornet in the school’s jazz band.
But, like DeMers’ choice of German, it may have cost her becoming valedictorian.
“If you’re dumb enough to take the wrong language or band or choir or the arts or anything that takes away the opportunity for a more weighted course, you lose,” Lavenz said. “This is a system that ignores the best and brightest for the sake of numbers. Why can’t we celebrate the achievements of all these kids? The system isn’t fair.”
Bezek agrees. Although his district includes four high schools and 13,000 students, he said DeMers and her family have stood out for years. He’d like the district to shift to a system that recognizes the remarkable achievements of several exceptional students, not just one.
But such a change is at least four years away.
“It wouldn’t be fair to change the system overnight,” he said. “There are students and families who begin planning for this before they enter high school. There are ninth-graders out there who already have their sight on becoming class valedictorian.”