In Santa Barbara County, as in the rest of the country, the race to become high school valedictorian is an increasingly cutthroat competition.
The honorific post has become the focus of intense student rivalries, slick maneuvering over class choices, and even the threat of legal action by parents.
To avoid splitting scholastic hairs in excruciatingly close contests, local schools are naming more multiple winners. Colleges, meanwhile, are getting flooded with more valedictorian applicants. And the valedictorians themselves are achieving GPAs that are through the roof.
Locally, the most intense valedictorian controversy has been waged at Lompoc High, where a $35,000 scholarship was at stake.
There, a neck-and-neck bid not only had a parent calling an attorney, but another accusing the school district of a cover-up. In the end, the school named four winners — a record number.
Lompoc is not the only place where pursuit of the valedictorian award has amped up academic competitiveness.
“With more students applying to colleges, it is kind of raising the bar,” said Jennifer Foster, an assistant principal at San Marcos High School.
To beef up their college applications, more students are taking college-level courses known as “Advanced Placement (AP)” or “International Baccalaureate” classes. Schools assign higher weight to those courses, raising the top possible GPA from 4.0 to 5.0.
During the 1990s the number of students taking college level courses doubled, according to The New Yorker magazine, which published a story this month stating that the increased competition has caused some schools to drop the distinction. Between 1990 and 2000, the mean GPA of high schoolers in the United States rose from 2.68 to 2.94, the magazine reported.
The stepped-up drive comes as a new reality TV show, called “The Scholar,” appears to glorify the growing intensity by having 10 students vie for a scholarship to the college of their choice.
In Carpinteria, valedictorian Emily Pettijohn felt the pressure both at home and beyond. The race at her school was so close the principal named three salutatorians.
Yet earning the title didn’t improve her prospects for scholarships; she applied for eight, and didn’t get one. The rejection letter from one school, Colorado College, said this has been the most competitive year in three decades — with 30 percent of its incoming freshmen being valedictorians from their schools.
She said many of the high schools there give the distinction to all students who receive straight A’s.
As a result of her failure to secure a scholarship, Emily is taking next year off.
“I’m going to move to Colorado and get residency out there,” she said. “I want to work full time . . . so I can save up some money for next year.”
Sometimes, the valedictorians aren’t even seniors.
Last year at Santa Barbara High School, seniors were peeved when 16-year-old Ben Eidelson, a junior who had accrued enough credits to graduate, took the title because he had the highest grade-point average, a 4.94. He had also earned two associate of arts degrees with honors.
In the old days, the tradition was to name one valedictorian and one salutatorian. Not anymore.
At the private Bishop Diego High School, there was only one valedictorian and salutatorian each year between 1990 and 2001, but this year, for the first time, the school had two of each. And Carpinteria’s naming of three salutatorians also probably constitutes a record, Principal John Arreguin said.
“It’s kind of difficult when you get into (differentiating) grade-point averages in the thousandths,” he said. “When you get into that minute an area . . . it isn’t worth trying to split hairs.”
At Santa Barbara High this year, Mikel Richardson won by a sliver, with an off-the-chart GPA of 4.85. The two salutatorians, Cord Phelps and Kimberly True, both earned a 4.82.
His sophomore year, Mikel quit playing football to keep his near-perfect grades on track.
While the praise from friends, family and strangers has been nice, it hasn’t come without sacrifice.
“I would have liked to learn a musical instrument,” said Mikel, who will attend Westmont College in Montecito, where he will major in chemistry.
David Hodges, an assistant principal at Santa Barbara High, said while it is good to recognize the academic feats of star students, he worries that the valedictorian title replaces the emphasis on learning with that of grades. Students, he added, are not similarly awarded for improvement.
“Say a student has gone from D’s to B’s (because) their reading comprehension had gone up,” he said. “Those accomplishments are well worthy of celebration as well.”
In Lompoc, the pressure went beyond simply being No. 1. Two of the school’s four winners had applied for a full-ride scholarship offered to valedictorians at Long Beach State — an award that amounts to about $35,000.
The dispute began when the front-running student, Matt Marchione, lost his sole first-place status because he dropped an AP class, leading to a swirl of confusion over the new winner. The school ultimately named four valedictorians, one of whom was Matt, whose father had contacted an attorney shortly before the announcement.
Earlier in the year, Matt had successfully applied for the Long Beach scholarship. The school bestows the award on the contingency that students wind up the first-place winners.
Naming four valedictorians infuriated parent David Grill, the father of Diane Grill, one of the four. Mr. Grill suspects his daughter, who unsuccessfully applied for the scholarship, achieved the highest GPA, and that the district caved to the legal pressure — a charge district officials deny.
But his anger has cooled somewhat since learning that, regardless of whether his daughter was the lone valedictorian, she did not qualify for the Long Beach scholarship.
“It still remains that the reputation of the school board is in the trash can, and the morale of the academic students is in the trash can,” he said. “The students see that no matter how hard they work, how great they achieve, the bottom line is . . . the actual reward in the end is determined by secret, back-room politics.”
Meanwhile, at Long Beach, the number of applicants for the scholarship — called President’s Scholars — has skyrocketed, from 25 the first year in 1995 to about 650 this year. Only 65 scholarships are available.
“We have moms with students in middle school calling to say, ‘I’ve heard about the scholarship, what do we need to do now to be competitive?’ ” said Valerie Bordeaux of Long Beach State.
The valedictorian imbroglio at Lompoc High wasn’t the district’s first.
Five years ago, a student at the other high school, Cabrillo, had taken the maximum number of AP courses, and had aced every course she took. Yet her GPA was surpassed by that of another student who had recently moved to Lompoc from a school out of town that had offered more AP classes.
Over the objections of the new student’s father — who pointedly identified himself as an attorney — the Lompoc school board crafted a policy granting principals the ability to name co-valedictorians despite differences in grade-point averages, “if inequity existed.”
But not all contests are bitter.
Take San Marcos High School, whose valedictorian and two salutatorians were all on the school’s polo team, and began hanging out in seventh grade.
Yet salutatorian Mike Kuhn admitted he wanted the title so badly he could taste it, unlike Thomas Myers, who assumed a more laid-back attitude but nonetheless wound up the winner.
“It’s sort of a fitting end,” Mike said.
One local high school, Dos Pueblos, has never given the honor, Assistant Principal Michelle Hughes said.
“All of our graduates are special,”
she said. “We want to keep an even playing field.”
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MIKE ELIASON / NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS
San Marcos High School graduate Thomas Myers assumed a more laid-back attitude toward the valedictorian honor than some of his peers, but he won it nonetheless.
Following controversy over who would be named valedictorian at Lompoc High, the school chose a record four winners, from top: Matt Marchione, Sarah Lyons, Thai Mova and Diane Grill