Hail and Farewell to Valedictorians

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At North Hollywood High there are 10 valedictorians, a top-ranked student who is not a valedictorian, and four commencement speakers, who are not necessarily top-ranked or valedictorians.

At Beverly Hills High School, there is no valedictorian (although there is a top-ranked student), and there are two commencement speakers. At Bais Yaakov School for Girls, an ultra-Orthodox school in Hancock Park, there is no valedictorian or top-ranked student, and anyone can speak at graduation.

And at Washington Preparatory High School in South L.A., a valedictorian means just what it long has: the top-ranked student who speaks at graduation.

The multisyllabic word derives from the Latin "valedicere," meaning, "to say farewell." When the tradition to have the top scholar give the commencement address began is unclear, but the culture of valedictorians has been changing as competition to get into the nation's most elite colleges has intensified. Even 40 years ago, some schools were savvy enough to realize their most eggheaded student might not necessarily be an oratorical wonder.

Now, many schools are trying to broaden the definition of the word. Public and private schools, particularly in affluent areas, are increasingly reluctant to single out one student on graduation day, saying the academic rivalry verges on the unhealthy, and it is unfair to spotlight one student when the difference between the GPAs of top seniors is often infinitesimal.

Faced with the evolving definition of a once-noble word, some graduates are satisfied, some sentimental, and some cynical, blasting the whole ranking process as nothing but a big game.

Scholars see deeper import. "It is part of a major conversation we are having in our culture about what is achievement.What is talent? What is genius?" says Mary Valentine, a sociologist and aide to the California Federation of Teachers (and former valedictorian). "Many people are coming to the conclusion that it is not just GPA."

Paul Attewell, a sociologist of education at the City University of New York Graduate Center, goes further. "The academic rat race has become more intense, and this is a reaction to that," Attewell says. "You would annoy kids if you picked [just one top student]. Schools are trying to find ways to lessen the conflict."

High-powered schools, where even the 30th-or 40th-ranked student still has top-notch grades, came to realize that the admissions system used by elite private colleges did a disservice to their smartest students, says Attewell, who wrote a paper called "The Winner Take All High School," about the effect of competition to get into the most elite colleges. In the last 20 years, he adds, more and more of these affluent schools have refused to provide colleges with their student rankings.

Inflated grades and a glut of Advanced Placement classes have also helped create schools where dozens of students have grade-point averages above a 4.0, a straight-A average. Often, that means no valedictorian, or multiple valedictorians. Granada Hills High, for instance, has 44 valedictorians this year.

One student says the definition of a "valedictorian" has become so convoluted it has lost its cachet. "If the word meant more, I would feel resentful," says Yevgeny Goldenberg, the top-ranked student in the class of 2001 at North Hollywood High School, who has a grade-point average of 4.684 but is not a valedictorian. "The unspoken reality is that being a valedictorian here isn't difficult. There are so many ways to achieve straight A's that the word has lost its meaning."

Top-Ranked Students Aren't Called Anything

There are 3,800 students at North Hollywood High School, and three separate schools under its roof: the "residential" school, the zoo magnet, and the highly gifted magnet. At this school, valedictorian means simply getting straight A's.

The school did not want to penalize students in the residential school by limiting valedictorian status just to students in the highly gifted magnet, explains college counselor Eileen Doctorow. As a result, valedictorians do not necessarily have the highest grade-point averages. And what about top-ranked students?

"We don't call them anything," Doctorow says. "They are just really smart. They don't get singled out."

The standard high school ranking system weights Advanced Placement and honors classes in calculating grade-point averages. An A in an AP class counts for five points, instead of four. At North Hollywood High School 45 students have GPAs over 4.0. The first valedictorian is ranked fourth in a class of 630, with a grade-point average of 4.650. Get it?

Yevgeny, the top-ranked student, who will attend Stanford this fall, could not care less that he is not a valedictorian. "It is respected to be No. 1," he says, alluding to his own position. "A valedictorian is one of 10, frankly."

Yevgeny is a heavy-set, fast-talking, intense boy with low-slung pants and spiky dirty blond hair who leans forward when he speaks and, at 17, knows exactly what he wants.

The second son of Ukrainian immigrants came to this country when he was 7. When he watched his brother, and idol, graduate from high school ranked No. 3 (almost working himself death to do so) he resolved to be No. 1. He has doggedly pursued that goal, endlessly calculating his GPA since entering high school and carefully analyzing what it takes to get the highest one possible.

"To put it bluntly, high school is a game," Yevgeny says, leaning forward with the conspiratorial air of a future deal-maker (he aspires to be an investment banker). "If you want to achieve something everyone knows the rules. Anyone can get straight A's. I go beyond that."

In his four years of high school, in addition to his AP classes, he took 17 classes at local colleges in economics, finance and real estate. He says every top student knows outside college classes are a quick way to boost your GPA. Like an Advanced Placement course, students earn a 5.0 for an A in a college course, plus .025 of a point for taking the extra units.

In his quest to be No. 1, Yevgeny regarded his outside courses as a "secret weapon." He produced his stealth credits at the beginning of senior year, he says, after lulling his student competitors into a false sense of security.

But when it came time to transfer his credits, he says, the school changed the rules. "I can't be sure [if it was due to me]," he says. "But they implemented a policy that I jokingly named the 'Yevgeny policy,' which limited the number of classes you can transfer to four a year. I felt kind of betrayed." His lead diminished, Yevgeny edged out the No. 2 student by just .022 of a point.

But spreading the glory can appease other high-achievers. Edwin Rolando Cabrera, one of North Hollywood's 10 valedictorians, prefers his pomp-laden title to being No. 1.

"I prefer 'valedictorian' because of what the word has meant before," says the modest valedictorian, who will attend UC Santa Barbara, and is the first in his family to go to college. "Aside from the fact that we have 10."

When friends and family fawn incredulously over his valedictorian status--thinking it means top-ranked student in the school, he just lets it slide. "They say, 'You are valedictorian? . . . I say, 'Yeah. . . .' and then it's the end of the conversation. I don't say anything else."

At North Hollywood High, speaking at a commencement is a separate process. This year four students auditioned, and all four were chosen. Teachers hypothesized that the school's first year on a year-round schedule contributed to the low turnout.

Anyone Can Speak at Bais Yaakov Graduation

The Bais Yaakov School for Girls is squeezed between a quiet Hancock Park neighborhood and the roaring traffic on La Brea Avenue.

Ring the bell, walk through the doors, and you enter another world. Hebrew signs adorn the walls. Chattering girls of high school age rush by in long, pleated skirts and long-sleeve button-down shirts of white or blue.

There is no valedictorian at this cramped school with 56 graduates. Anyone who wants to can speak at graduation; those who do not wish to must bring a signed note from home excusing them. This year 31 girls will speak. But don't groan, it's over in a flash.

"To every parent, graduation is a special time," says Rabbi Yoel Bursztyn, who runs the school. "They should be able to relish the joy of their child's graduation. Why give it to one person? They are all wonderful in my eyes."

Each girl speaks for 11/2 to three minutes. To keep things lively, each girl is assigned a topic: appreciation of teachers, of the school, of the faculty.

Although there are honors classes and Advanced Placement courses, students cannot achieve grade-point averages above 4.0, and students are not ranked. Students say they know who the brains are, though.

Rabbi Bursztyn says that in this school, effort is more important than raw talent. "My girls will score high on the SATs," Bursztyn says. "But the emphasis is on the development of the girls rather than the grades. Good grades go to the brightest girl," Bursztyn says. "But that's a God-given gift, no credit to the girl. Personality is something that is developed."

Estee Rosenthal, school president, and one of the girls who will speak, says it is fine that no one is singled out academically or speech-wise. Estee will go to Israel next year to study, along with more than 90% of her graduating class. About half will go onto college after that. "We don't live for recognition," Estee explains. "We get our recognition every day."

Bursztyn says that so far, the system works. "I don't force anyone to sit there," he says. "I've never had a complaint that it is too boring."

A Speaker, Not a Valedictorian, Is Chosen

Across town in Beverly Hills, it's a different world. Standing in the shadow of the high-rises of Century City, many students cruise onto campus in Mercedeses, BMWs and four-wheel-drive vehicles. Competition can be ruthless.

Here, there is no valedictorian. "We've always done it this way," says Assistant Principal Rick Munitz, who has organized graduation for the last 19 years. "One way or another we have always selected a speaker, as opposed to selecting a valedictorian."

In some cases, he says, that is easier than selecting a valedictorian. "It happens this year we have only one, who is the top student," he says. "But last year there were four who were within a hundredth of a point."

This year, 45 students signed up, and 22 turned out to vie for a coveted speaking spot. After rehearsing at dinner tables and in front of mirrors, students turned up in the auditorium on the big day, ready to read before a panel of judges made up of teachers and administrators. This year's graduation theme is "Today Well Lived," which is also the school motto.

Just two students were selected. Anyone is eligible to speak, but Munitz says that, historically, speakers tend to be in the top 5% of their class. Both speakers this year have GPAs above 4.0. The panel is not looking for anything in particular, he adds.

"It's pretty hard to have a very, very different graduation speech," Munitz says. "What differentiates one from another is the imagery a student uses, or how a student looks at current events."

Still, the two students who won the speech competition pursued their goal with the same steely determination Yevgeny Goldenberg applied to earning his No. 1 rank.

Both speakers have been aiming for this since the beginning of high school, and at 18, both are veteran graduation speakers. "It's a big deal, because it's not predetermined," says Erika Raney, whose idealistic speech was half poem, half prose.

Both Erika and David Foldvary thought carefully about their messages and analyzed what comprises a successful graduation speech with the meticulous attention of professional speech writers.

David, who's headed to Georgetown University, focused on not sounding like Al Gore, wooden and humorless; Erika, who will attend UCLA, concentrated on how to inspire her fellow graduates not to lapse into complacency in an era where no crisis or world war calls them to action.

David breaks graduation speeches into three basic types: "There are those like mine," he explains, "about what it means to be educated at Beverly Hills. There are the traditional, general graduation speeches.

"One girl quoted the entire Robert Frost poem 'The Road Not Taken,' which is graduation speech central. And there is the personal, like one girl who emigrated and told her story.

"Mine is the first type," he concludes. "Erika's is the second."

David says the most common pitfall for aspiring graduation speakers--one he managed to avoid this year--is that they try to lace their oratory with quotes from famous people. "As a result they end up picking irrelevant quotes," he says.

In his eighth-grade graduation speech he included an FDR quote, but this time around he used his own words. At least that was the plan. "At the last minute I listened to Dave Matthews," he says. "Dave Matthews is no FDR, but I thought his quote was very apropos."

He concludes his speech: "Dave Matthews, one of our era's greatest songwriters, contemplates, 'If I were giant-sized, on top of it all, then tell me what in the world would I go on for, if I had it all.' It is my belief that each member of the graduating class is giant-sized."

Tradition Rules at Washington Preparatory

At Washington Preparatory High School, things are done the traditional way. Alberto Alquicira is the valedictorian for the class of 2001 and will be speaking come graduation day.

Tall and lanky, the son of Mexican immigrants says he is lucky that he's a good speaker, comfortable before his peers.

Last week Alberto, who will attend UCLA this fall, was still laboring over his speech. He carried a battered copy of the first few paragraphs in his back pocket. He was busy working on it between classes, homework, watching his little brother, and going to his 30-hour-a-week job at a greeting card store.

Alberto has a grade-point average of 4.205. He, too, has been shooting for the valedictorian spot since he graduated at the top in middle school. But here, perhaps, the message to aspire for greatness means more, and is delivered with more earnestness than at the other schools.

Alberto says when he heard he would speak, the assistant principal called him in, sat him down, and told him what he could and couldn't talk say. "I had to get special permission to thank my parents in Spanish," he says. "She says you can't dog on the school or anything, and it's not a 'you' speech. It's kind of a speech where you give a message."

So Alberto will not relive the past four years in his speech, nor savor his high school memories for his peers. The theme of his speech is more sobering.

"My speech is about succeeding, no matter what your surroundings are," he says. "That's important here. Students get sucked into the surroundings. All inner-city schools have this label that we are bad. Students hear that and maybe they think they don't have to do as well. They come to fit that label."

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