Huntington Beach high schools opt to use Latin honors for top students

None of them will become valedictorian, but some of the brightest 17- and 18-year-olds in Huntington Beach will be graduating summa cum laude before they ever set foot on a college campus.

For years, high schools have been retreating from singling out students as valedictorians and salutatorians to ease the competition and pressure that the quest for the top class rankings can place on teenagers.

Some high schools have found a solution in recognizing dozens of valedictorians. Others shun the designation entirely.

High schools in Huntington Beach are adopting a different approach, replacing the traditional recognitions with the broader, more inclusive Latin honors used by colleges and universities: magna cum laude for students with grade-point averages of 4.0 and above and summa cum laude for students earning 4.4 and higher.


“Before, there was only one recognized,” said Janie Hoy, principal of Huntington Beach High School. “Now we’re opening it up to many.”

The idea of using Latin honors, school officials said, was designed to ensure that students see themselves as scholars, not rats in a race to the statistical top.

Rivalry for the traditional top honors can be so intense that high-achieving students overload their schedules with honors courses, overwork themselves in pursuit of straight A’s and even slyly take extra weighted classes at schools across town -- all to push their grade-point averages further and further above 4.0.

“You’re talking about students who are within fractions of a point of each other competing for that top spot,” said Carol Osbrink, assistant superintendent of educational services for the Huntington Beach Union High School District. “In our way of thinking, that’s borderline unhealthy.”

Benjamin Simons, a Huntington Beach High School junior who serves as a student representative to the school board, said that though many top students were against the change, he supports it because he has seen the quest for valedictorian become a near obsession among his talented peers.

“Incredibly bright students become zombie-like,” he said. “They’re so worn out by school that they don’t have much of a personality left.”

With a 4.0 GPA, Simons, 16, already knows he won’t be eligible for valedictorian.

“I wouldn’t even be close, even though I think my GPA is pretty good,” he said. “Now, when I walk I’ll be recognized for magna cum laude.”


But not everyone is supportive. Traditionalists say competition is a useful tool to motivate students, and political correctness is not a good reason to eliminate the top two recognitions.

School board member Matthew Harper was the only “no” vote when the school district approved the change last month, saying he had encountered “overwhelming opposition” to the loss of individual recognitions.

And some teens resent losing the chance to distinguish themselves as the top student.

“Valedictorian was a title they wanted the opportunity to get,” Simons said, reporting the view of some of his high-achieving peers. “They didn’t want it to go away.”


Nonetheless, the changes in Huntington Beach are yet another signal that the old concept of a single valedictorian is fast becoming less common.

None of Irvine’s four high schools, for example, use the term, instead bestowing the top tier of students with Latin honors or groupings such as “highest honors” and “high honors with distinction.”

Other school districts, however, cling to the tradition.

Los Angeles high schools have no plans to stop recognizing valedictorians and salutatorians, officials said, but 2004 district guidelines say commencement ceremonies should focus on honoring the graduating class as a whole and keep individual recognitions “to an absolute minimum.”


When high schools in Temecula floated the idea of eliminating valedictorian awards in 2007, students gathered hundreds of signatures opposing the change, and administrators backed off.

English teacher Jodi Young, who advises the 100 students who make up Huntington Beach High’s chapter of the National Honor Society, said she expects some outcry. But she said she can see how the change could help end grade-grubbing and “point pimping,” a term for the practice of students accumulating advanced classes just to pump up their grade-point average.

“When there’s a race for the top, you’ll have science and math students taking Advanced Placement music theory when they have no interest in music,” she said. “There’s always a backlash to change, but if the reasons behind it are more positive -- to honor more students -- then the majority may receive it well and not with anger.”

Huntington Beach’s six high schools will phase in the Latin honors over four years, with this year’s freshmen the first to graduate without valedictorians. The top two groupings will wear white robes at graduation to make them stand out from other students, who are usually clad in black.


An even rarer animal than the top student designation is the valedictory speech, a privilege traditionally reserved for the No. 1 student. Most schools these days opt for tryouts or auditions. Those, officials point out, are open to all graduates.