Redefining the meaning of 'top grad'

Published: Sunday, June 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 30, 2008 at 8:42 p.m.

With increasing standards, rising test scores, and grade point averages thought mathematically impossible a decade ago, high school students are redefining the meaning of "top graduate."

"There's a great deal of pressure for high school students," said Cathy Atria, assistant principal at Newberry High School. While high school students were once accepted to colleges based on an outstanding SAT score, a high GPA or a strong course load, they now need to have it all, Atria said.

"We strongly encourage students to get plugged in," said David Shelnutt, the assistant principal for curriculum at Buchholz High School, which offers students 70 different clubs, organizations and honor societies. "Colleges are looking for well-rounded students."

But for graduates to receive special recognition at Eastside High School, it can take more than just participation in extracurricular activities, said Sherry Estes, the assistant principal of student services. With an increasing number of students getting involved in activities outside the classroom, students have to take it to the next level, she said, like starting an organization to raise money for autism research or delivering food for meal programs before school.

"It's a matter of who can manage their time," Estes said. "Time management is essential."

But while participation in extracurricular activities increases, academics are also on the rise. According to the University of Florida Web site, nearly 74 percent of admitted freshman in 2007 had a 4.0 GPA and above, computed by the university, compared to about 64 percent in 2006.

At Buchholz, 16 students were named "top graduates" this year, and all had a 4.7 GPA or higher, Shelnutt said.

"Many of them have never made a B in their life," he said.

Estes said Eastside stopped honoring only one valedictorian almost 10 years ago. This year, 16 graduates received the valedictorian title, she said. The number of salutatorians? None. There would simply be too many, Estes said.

Because of the escalating competition and perfect GPAs, many high schools now calculate students' grade point averages with extra "weight" given to grades from advanced placement courses - college-structured courses that give students college credit if they pass the standardized examination.

"If the students are academically motivated, we push them into AP classes," Estes said. "We need to see who can handle these classes."

Over the past decade, Eastside High School doubled the number of AP classes it offers, Estes said. Students can enroll in 20 college-level courses including biology, chemistry, psychology, statistics and music, she said.

According to Jackie Johnson, a spokeswoman for Alachua County Public Schools, there are currently 2,199 student enrolled in at least one AP classes, compared to 1,828 last year, with many students taking several AP courses at a time. In addition, the passing rate for these AP exams is up 20 percent from 2003, she said.

But even with all the advanced placement courses offered in the county, sometimes it's still not enough, Shelnutt said. Some soon-to-be graduates at Buchholz started exhausting all the advanced math courses by their senior year and had to enroll in courses like calculus III and differential equations at UF, he said.

"Kids are doing things in high school that didn't experience until I was in college," Atria said.

"We know that if you challenge the students, most of them will rise to the challenge and be better prepared for college," Johnson said.

For North Central Florida high schools, there were at least 193 students who rose to the challenge and earned at least a 4.0 GPA.

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