Dear Editor and Fellow Owls,

As many of you may know, I have followed the Kymberly Wimberly Valedictorian Lawsuit ever since Courthouse News first released the story in July. For the Times-News, I explained about how schools calculate GPAs, and on my blog, Edspressway.com, I outlined seven misconceptions about the case.  Last week, ColorofChange.org, in association with Change.org, petitioned the McGehee School District to do the “right” thing and name Kymberly as sole valedictorian.  So now I am asking you to stand by me and support the school board, Mr. Gathen, and Coach Thompson because they did make the RIGHT decision:  honoring both Kymberly Wimberly and Anna Cathryn Massey as valedictorian of the McGehee High School Class of 2011.  This decision not only shows that they support learning and high achievement but that they recognize all students, black and white, for their achievements and not the color of their skin.  Here is why both students deserve the recognition of valedictorian:

First, the McGehee Student Handbook clearly states a student cannot be penalized for taking more regular classes holding all else equal. Monticello has the exact same policy in their handbook.  McGehee did not just make up this policy the week of graduation.  In 2006, they added this clause when McGehee first started offering Advanced Placement courses, and this clause never left the handbook.   The district wanted to make sure that honor students would continue taking more classes and not stop when they reached the magic number of 23 credits.

Second, according to the lawsuit, “During that time, [Kymberly] only received one ‘B.’ Even with an Honors and AP laden course, the rest of her grades were ‘A’s.” I have seen Anna Cathryn’s transcript, and the exact same statement could be made on her behalf.  So based on her transcript and statements made by Anna Cathryn and Kymberly, they both took three Advanced Placement classes (worth 5-points each) and made A’s in those classes.  They both made only one ‘B,’ in a regular 4-point class. Kymberly made her ‘B’ in college-prep English and Anna Cathryn made her ‘B’ in physical science. The school requires both of those classes for honor graduates. 

As with Kymberly, Anna Cathryn “worked extra hard her senior year taking as many Honors and Advanced Placement classes as she could in order to” keep the top rank. Also, Anna Cathryn took an extra half-credit class her senior year, advanced music. So Anna Cathryn graduated with 29 credits, while Kymberly graduated with only 28.5 credits.  Without the advanced music class, Anna Cathryn’s GPA was exactly the same as Kymberly’s, a 4.09. With the advanced music half-credit, Anna Cathryn’s GPA dropped to a 4.0893.  Once a student makes an ‘A’ in an advanced placement class, earning 5 points, any ‘A’ in a regular 4 point class WILL LOWER his or her overall GPA.

Third, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prevents school officials from discussing a student’s record which includes GPA and grades with someone other than that student’s parents.  As far as sharing student grades amongst school personnel, a student’s record cannot be shared with staff members who do not have a “legitimate educational interest” for that student.  Therefore, Ms. Stobaugh could not discuss Anna Cathryn’s GPA or any circumstances surrounding Anna Cathryn’s class rank to anyone other than her parents and school administrators, which does not include Ms. Bratton or Kymberly.

Fourth, for some reason this case wants to discredit the honor of co-valedictorian from the original word, ‘valedictorian.’  Many schools across the country honor more than one valedictorian in a single class, and schools sometime label these valedictorians as “multiple valedictorians” or “co-valedictorians” or in the case of Jericho High School “creative valedictorians” or they may just describe them each as “the valedictorian.”   Just as someone might say, “I’m turning onto the road now,” the term ‘road’ represents almost anywhere someone drives a car and ‘the’ is just a reference to which one.  ‘The’ valedictorian simply references a particular valedictorian and is not synonymous with ‘sole.’  Regardless of which way a school labels multiple valedictorians, the title still means the same, Rank 1.  In the world of transcripts, we don’t say “½ of 1” rank.  We say rank 1.  We just add the ‘co’ as a mere warning to readers and graduation attendees that this class happens to have more than one top achiever. 

Fifth, the lawsuit claims some school employee told Ms. Bratton that her daughter earning valedictorian will cause a “big mess.”  Kymberly and her family perceived this as a racial reference, which is their right.  However, perceptions do not always equal reality.  Perhaps the ‘big mess’ referred to Anna Cathryn, who from the middle of her junior year and through the end of her senior year held the top rank, only to find out she lost it because she took too many classes. The law suit only quotes, ‘big mess.’ We have no idea what else was said, who said it, or the context of the conversation.   Change of Color has actually misquoted this section of the lawsuit.  According to their website, ‘the school principal decided it would be a ‘big mess’ to have a black valedictorian.  So somehow, the story changed from school personnel concerned about a ‘big mess’ to the principal instigating a ‘big mess,’ which leads me to number six.

Sixth, according to Mr. Gathen, the superintendent, in a conversation we shared Sept. 27, said, “I’m the one who caught the mistake,” and he showed both Coach Thompson and Ms. Stobaugh the policy where students are not penalized for taking extra classes and then he, Mr. Gathen, declared Anna Cathryn a valedictorian.    

Seventh, students and parents ultimately choose their classes.  Only 10% of the 2011 graduating class enlisted in the Advanced Placement program, which is proportionately low for both black and white students.   Students have to want to be in an Advanced Placement class. If the school literally forced every student to take an AP course and the students are not ready and willing to work for it, then AP teachers have to water down curriculum, which the College Board does not allow.   The purpose of such an intensive curriculum is so students can make a 3 or higher on the AP exam and earn college credit.  Because the College Board mandates rigor in AP classes, students need more than just a chair in an AP classroom, they need evidence of prior high performance and a strong support system at home. 

Eighth, Kymberly’s lawsuit claims “At McGehee Secondary School, none of the Advanced Placement Teachers are African-American,” and it also says, “the Advanced Placement English teacher discouraged African American students from enrolling by telling them, among other things that the work was too hard.” Well according to the Arkansas Department of Education, last year, Karen Fuller, an African American, taught AP English/Language. The lawsuit also says a “non-Caucasian Advanced Placement Biology teacher encouraged all the McGehee students to enroll in her class.”  The Arkansas Department of Education lists that non-Caucasian teacher, Jennifer Jehnsen, as new to the McGehee School District in 2010-11. Students pick their classes the prior year, so I’m not exactly sure how Ms. Jehsnen “encouraged” black or white students to take her class before the district even offered her a job.

Ninth, Kymberly believes the school district “did not want to see [her], and African-American young mother as Valedictorian.”   Because of her teen mom status, fellow teen mom, Bee Lavender, initiated the original petition to name Kymberly as sole valedictorian at change.org.  According to Bee, “She went back to school a few short weeks after having a child, and worked endlessly hard to achieve high grades in advanced placement classes - courses often considered too difficult for even bright students.”  Well Anna Cathryn also missed several weeks of school about the same time that Kymberly returned from maternity leave.  Anna Cathryn had constructive surgery on her jaw from a birth defect. Her doctors insisted she not wait on the surgery.  With two Advanced Placement courses and five regular classes, she actually took her semester tests early. When she returned to school in January, she could only drink liquids, no solid food, for about six weeks. Anna Cathryn also “worked endlessly hard to achieve high grades.” She actually made all A’s that year.

Tenth, Kymberly believes that “the defendants do not support African-Americans.”  Well the Thomas Gathen, William Campbell, Joe Herren, Katie Daniels, Clarke Pugh, Alice Banks, Toby Young, Jeff Owyoung, and Darrell Thompson that I know support all of McGehee: African-Americans, Anglo-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanic-Americans.  This is not a race issue, it’s a policy issue and the McGehee School District simply followed the student handbook.  Yes, McGehee is a blessed community because WE all call McGehee home, and just last year, everyone, all races, came together to save the schools.  So organizations like Color of Change want to divide us, discredit the school board, and disgrace our town.  Is this really a black/white issue or is this nothing more than a great town wanting to reward two high achieving students? Do we punish Anna Cathryn for taking an extra course and strip her of her valedictorian honor because she is white? Well that’s what Change of Color wants.  Color of Change’s high value of education really means rewarding students for taking fewer classes.  So again I ask, will you stand by me and support our school district and their mission of providing all McGehee students the most opportunities for learning?

Sincerely,

Charlie Belin, McGehee Owl, Class of 1997

cbelin@uark.edu

Charlie Belin is a doctoral candidate in Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. 

—— Original Message ——

From: charlie belin

To: editor@themcgeheetimes.com

Sent: Friday, September 30, 2011 11:04 AM

Subject: letter to editor/citizens of McGehee

Rachel, 

Please let me know if you decide or not decide to publish my letter.

Thanks, Charlie Belin

Dear Editor and Fellow Owls,

As many of you may know, I have followed the Kymberly Wimberly Valedictorian Lawsuit ever since Courthouse News first released the story in July. For the Times-News, I explained about how schools calculate GPAs, and on my blog, Edspressway.com, I outlined seven misconceptions about the case.  Last week, ColorofChange.org, in association with Change.org, petitioned the McGehee School District to do the “right” thing and name Kymberly as sole-valedictorian.  So now I am asking you to stand by me and support the school board, Mr. Gathen, and Coach Thompson because they did make the RIGHT decision:  honoring both Kymberly Wimberly and Anna Cathryn Massey as valedictorian of the McGhee High School Class of 2011.  This decision not only shows that they support learning and high achievement but that they recognize all students, black and white, for their achievements and not the color of their skin.    Here is why both students deserve the recognition of valedictorian:

First, the McGehee Student Handbook clearly states a student cannot be penalized for taking more regular classes holding all else equal. Monticello has the exact same policy in their handbook.  McGehee did not just make up this policy the week of graduation.  In 2006, they added this clause when McGehee first started offering Advanced Placement courses, and this clause never left the handbook.   The district wanted to make sure that honor students would continue taking more classes and not stop when they reached the magic number of 23 credits.

Second, according to the lawsuit, “During that time, [Kymberly] only received one ‘B.’ Even with an Honors and AP laden course, the rest of her grades were ‘A’s.” I have seen Anna Cathryn’s transcript, and the exact same statement could be made on her behalf.  So based on her transcript and statements made by Anna Cathryn and Kymberly, they both took three Advanced Placement classes (worth 5-points each) and made A’s in those classes.  They both made only one ‘B,’ in a regular 4-point class. Kymberly made her ‘B’ in college-prep English and Anna Cathryn made her ‘B’ in physical science. The school requires both of those classes for honor graduates. 

As with Kymberly, Anna Cathryn “worked extra hard her senior year taking as many Honors and Advanced Placement classes as she could in order to” keep the top rank. Also, Anna Cathryn took an extra half-credit class her senior year, advanced music. So Anna Cathryn graduated with 29 credits, while Kymberly graduated with only 28.5 credits.  Without the advanced music class, Anna Cathryn’s GPA was exactly the same as Kymberly’s, a 4.09. With the advanced music half-credit, Anna Cathryn’s GPA dropped to a 4.0893.  Once a student makes an ‘A’ in an advanced placement class, earning 5 points, any ‘A’ in a regular 4 point class WILL LOWER his or her overall GPA.

Third, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prevents school officials from discussing a student’s record which includes GPA and grades with someone other than that student’s parents.  As far as sharing student grades amongst school personnel, a student’s record cannot be shared with staff members who do not have a “legitimate educational interest” for that student.  Therefore, Ms. Stobaugh could not discuss Anna Cathryn’s GPA or any circumstances surrounding Anna Catheryn’s class rank to anyone other than her parents and school administrators, which does not include Ms. Bratton or Kymberly.

Fourth, for some reason this case wants to discredit the honor of co-valedictorian from the original word, ‘valedictorian.’  Many schools across the country honor more than one valedictorian in a single class, and schools sometime label these valedictorians as “multiple valedictorians” or “co-valedictorians” or in the case of Jericho High School “creative valedictorians” or they may just describe them each as “the valedictorian.”   Just as someone might say, “I’m turning onto the road now,” the term ‘road’ represents almost anywhere someone drives a car and ‘the’ is just a reference to which one.  ‘The’ valedictorian simply references a particular valedictorian and is not synonymous with ‘sole.’  Regardless of which way a school labels multiple valedictorians, the title still means the same, Rank 1.  In the world of transcripts, we don’t say “½ of 1” rank.  We say rank 1.  We just add the ‘co’ as a mere warning to readers and graduation attendees that this class happens to have more than one top achiever. 

Fifth, the lawsuit claims some school employee told Ms. Bratton that her daughter earning valedictorian will cause a “big mess.”   Kymberly and her family perceived this as a racial reference, which is their right.  However, perceptions do not always equal reality.  Perhaps the ‘big mess’ referred to Anna Cathryn, who from the middle of her junior year and through the end of her senior year held the top rank, only to find out she lost it because she took too many classes. The law suit only quotes, ‘big mess.’ We have no idea what else was said, who said it, or the context of the conversation.   Change of Color has actually misquoted this section of the lawsuit.  According to their website, ‘the school principal decided it would be a ‘big mess’ to have a black valedictorian.  So somehow, the story changed from school personnel concerned about a ‘big mess’ to the principal instigating a ‘big mess,’ which leads me to number six.

Sixth, according to Mr. Gathen, the superintendent, in a conversation we shared Sept. 27, said, “I’m the one who caught the mistake,” and he showed both Coach Thompson and Ms. Stobaugh the policy where students are not penalized for taking extra classes and then he, Mr. Gathen, declared Anna Cathryn a valedictorian.    

Seventh, students and parents ultimately choose their classes.  Only 10% of the 2011 graduating class enlisted in the Advanced Placement program, which is proportionately low for both black and white students.   Students have to want to be in an Advanced Placement class. If the school literally forced every student to take an AP course and the students are not ready and willing to work for it, then AP teachers have to water down curriculum, which the College Board does not allow.   The purpose of such an intensive curriculum is so students can make a 3 or higher on the AP exam and earn college credit.  Because the College Board mandates rigor in AP classes, students need more than just a chair in an AP classroom, they need evidence of prior high performance and a strong support system at home. 

Eighth, Kymberly’s lawsuit claims “At McGehee Secondary School, none of the Advanced Placement Teachers are African-American,” and it also says, “the Advanced Placement English teacher discouraged African American students from enrolling by telling them, among other things that the work was too hard.” Well according to the Arkansas Department of Education, last year, Karen Fuller, an African American, taught AP English/Language. The lawsuit also says a “non-Caucasian Advanced Placement Biology teacher encouraged all the McGehee students to enroll in her class.”  The Arkansas Department of Education lists that non-Caucasian teacher, Jennifer Jehnsen, as new to the McGehee School District in 2010-11. Students pick their classes the prior year, so I’m not exactly sure how Ms. Jehsnen “encouraged” black or white students to take her class before the district even offered her a job.

Ninth, Kymberly believes the school district “did not want to see [her], and African-American young mother as Valedictorian.”   Because of her teen mom status, fellow teen mom, Bee Lavender, initiated the original petition to name Kymberly as sole valedictorian at change.org.  According to Bee, “She went back to school a few short weeks after having a child, and worked endlessly hard to achieve high grades in advanced placement classes - courses often considered too difficult for even bright students.”  Well Anna Cathryn also missed several weeks of school about the same time that Kymberly returned from maternity leave.  Anna Cathryn had constructive surgery on her jaw from a birth defect. Her doctors insisted she not wait on the surgery.  With two Advanced Placement courses and five regular classes, she actually took her semester tests early. When she returned to school in January, she could only drink liquids, no solid food, for about six weeks. Anna Cathryn also “worked endlessly hard to achieve high grades.” She actually made all A’s that year.

Tenth, Kymberly believes that “the defendants do not support African-Americans.”  Well the Thomas Gathen, William Campbell, Joe Herren, Katie Daniels, Clarke Pugh, Alice Banks, Toby Young, Jeff Owyoung, and Darrell Thompson that I know support all of McGehee: African-Americans, Anglo-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanic-Americans.  This is not a race issue, it’s a policy issue and the McGehee School District simply followed the student handbook.  Yes, McGehee is a blessed community because WE all call McGehee home, and just last year, everyone, all races, came together to save the schools.    So organizations like Color of Change want to divide us, discredit the school board, and disgrace our town.  Is this really a black/white issue or is this nothing more than a great town wanting to reward two high achieving students? Do we punish Anna Cathryn for taking an extra course and strip her of her valedictorian honor because she is white? Well that’s what Change of Color wants.  Color of Change’s high value of education really means rewarding students for taking fewer classes.  So again I ask, will you stand by me and support our school district and their mission of providing all McGehee students the most opportunities for learning?

Sincerely,

Charlie Belin, McGehee Owl, Class of 1997

cbelin@uark.edu

Charlie Belin is a doctoral candidate in Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. 

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