South Burlington High Schoolers will cross the stage at Saint Michael’s College this Friday as part of the school’s 58th commencement ceremony. There will be pomp and circumstance, speeches and about 200 diplomas doled out. But perhaps what’s most notable is a lack of Valedictorian and Salutatorian.
For about 15 years, South Burlington has forgone an official class ranking and instead used Latin honors as a mark of top academic achievement. According to Principal Patrick Burke, it’s a common practice in Vermont and New England schools that offers a plethora of benefits.
Over one decade ago, school administrators examined the class ranking system and found a dilemma: Students could only climb the ranks if those ahead of them declined in academic standing. Switching to Latin honors, however, meant a student’s efforts, independent of their classmates’ performances, would determine whether or not they achieved titles.
Students must have a minimum 3.5, 3.8 or 4.1 final, four-year-cumulative grade point average to attain cum laude, magna cum laude or summa cum laude honors, respectively.
“No one was ever sitting there like, ‘Oh I’m ranked 13 and I want to be 12,’” Burke said, adding since the switch to Latin honors, he’s had students tell him being able to achieve titles independent of peer performance, has inspired them to sustain their academic performance throughout their high school careers.
This year, Ann Wong – an anticipated summa cum laude Latin honors recipient – will give the “message,” one of four student speeches during the ceremony. Two of her fellow anticipated summa cum laude honors recipients, Kenneth Bertrand and Kailey Yang, will give the opening and closing remarks while class president Claire Le Duc will precede faculty speaker Theresa Akerley.
“I was so excited,” Wong said. “I’ve always prided myself on being a student who works really hard and I was hoping that I would graduate summa cum laude.”
She believes her experience as captain of the speech and debate team will help her craft an address that resonates with her classmates.
“For the most part we’ve been a significant part of each other’s school-life since kindergarten,” Wong said of her classmates, adding their achievement was “very bittersweet.”
One of her fondest memories of the class includes their four-year reigning title as “Talent Night” champions. The event pits SBHS grade levels against each other to write and perform the best original play.
“The fact that we’ve never lost talent night really exemplifies our ability to rally and to come together,” Wong said.
What’s more, Wong takes pride in the impact her class had both inside and outside the school.
“We’re the smallest class size in the high school, but I feel like in a way we’ve been able to have one of the loudest voices,” she said, adding that her classmates completed hundreds of hours of community service from tutoring to volunteer with Meals on Wheels.
Indeed, Burke said he will remember this class as the smallest in number but “the largest in action.” Over the course of four years, the class led walkouts related to common-sense gun laws, raised the Black Lives Matter flag and started “SPEAK Week” in which students promoted participation in education, advocacy and kindness.
“They engaged in a robust way with issues in and out of school,” Burke said. “That’s really what they’re leaving as a legacy.”
He advised students to keep up their efforts, remain engaged and consume information thoughtfully.
According to Wong, many of her classmates will be moving out-of-state for their next chapter. She said there are several students headed to study in Washington D.C. The furthest move she’s heard of is an Arizona-bound classmate.
“We’re definitely dispersing out of the state, which is fun to see where everyone ends up,” she said.
As for her own plans, Wong will attend the University of Vermont and is considering a biology concentration with a pre-medical track. This school year she had the honor of presenting one of her science fair projects – conducted alongside a UVM professor – at the International Gynecologic Cancer Society Meeting in Japan. In her last week of classes, Wong wrapped up final projects and crafted her speech. She reflected on her time at the school with gratitude for the people around her.
“It’s just really been great to be a part of this community and I couldn’t imagine growing up or going to school anywhere else or with anyone else,” Wong said.
The SBHS graduation ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. in the Saint Michael’s College Ross Sports Center on Friday, June 14. Doors open at 9 a.m. Seating is free and open to the public.