In May, McComb High School officials came to a school board meeting to discuss the district’s method of choosing its valedictorian and salutatorian.
This Tuesday, the topic arose again as the school board held a two-hour executive session to discuss a complaint from a woman who believes her child had the grades to be the valedictorian.
Several school officials were in the meeting, including high school principal Robert Lamkin and counselors Juanita Steptoe and Karman Butler; and central office employees Keitha Newton and Sue Jarvis.
Also attending was the mother of the student and a woman identified as the student’s advocate. The student whose family is questioning the graduation awards was not there.
At the school board’s May meeting, Lamkin and the counselors discussed the selection procedure mandated by the handbook. It’s unusual in that students choose 18 of their 24 high school credits to be used for their grade point average for the top awards — four each in English, math, social studies and science, and two in a foreign language.
Steptoe and Butler calculate the averages for the 18 credits, and since this year’s valedictorian was going to receive a Ford Fiesta, the counselors had the main office double-check the findings.
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A couple of hours before McComb’s May 23 graduation, the Enterprise-Journal received a phone call from Roberta Walker, the mother who was at Tuesday’s school board meeting. She said her daughter Talya had been told that she was the Class of 2019 valedictorian, but at 4:45 the afternoon of graduation, the family got another call saying her grade point average actually ranked third.
Walker told the Enterprise-Journal the next day that she believes her daughter was treated unfairly and something was wrong with the selection process if the valedictorian isn’t known until the afternoon of the graduation.
Walker, who is a guidance counselor at Higgins Middle School, said she and her daughter carefully reviewed Talya’s selected courses in an effort for them to count toward her class ranking under the school district’s honors selection process.
“I’m a guidance counselor so I understand how things are awarded clearly,” she said.
A month before graduation, Walker called Steptoe to make sure her daughter had the required classes to be included in the selection process, specifically some college-level and advanced math courses.
Walker said school officials told her on the day before graduation that her daughter had been named valedictorian.
“We were all excited,” she said.
But on the day of graduation Walker’s excitement turned to disappointment.
“At 4:45 I’ve got two missed calls,” she said. “I was getting ready for graduation. It started at 7.”
The calls were from Assistant Superintendent Ruby Husband, Walker said.
“She said we had to go back in and do some recalculations again and your child is not class valedictorian,” Walker said. “I said, ‘This is unbelievable. It’s unheard of.’ ”
She said school officials told her they met again and decided to do away with some of the college courses. By leaving them in, Walker contended, her daughter would have had the highest grade point average in the class.
“This was the dirtiest stuff and my child is suffering,” she said. “They said, ‘Mrs. Walker, we were going strictly by the books.’ I looked at Mrs. Husband in her face. I said, ‘Mrs. Husband, do you remember being in a meeting and you told us that those college courses were allowable?’ ”
While the car would have been a nice bonus, Walker said her daughter was more interested in receiving a scholarship, not to mention the prestige that comes with having the valedictorian listed on her resume.
“All of our kids have cars, so that wasn’t the thing. It was the title. It was the scholarship,” she said. “She has been preparing for this moment that they stole away from her.”
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At Tuesday’s board meeting, the closed-door session was quiet for more than an hour when someone came to the door of the board room and asked district security director Greg Gilmore to come inside. Shortly after that, board president Betsy Murrell banged her gavel on the desk several times, loudly enough to be heard outside the board room.
The board room doors have two small windows, and trustee Kizzy Coney could be seen berating someone in the room, apparently either the student’s mother or the high school staff. Trustee Lorraine Gayden had a hand over her face.
Gilmore came out of the meeting about half an hour later. Walker and the child advocate left 20 minutes after that, and the board adjourned a few minutes later. Superintendent Dr. Cederick Ellis had no comment, though he did confirm that the board spent the entire closed session discussing this year’s valedictorian and salutatorian selection process.