West Jefferson Hills School District leaders want to give all TJ seniors the chance to have their voice heard at graduation.
Board members on Aug. 13 approved the high school handbook for the 2019-20 school year that included a change to how students will be selected to speak at graduation.
Students now will be chosen to speak — and all students will be eligible to submit their remarks for review — based on criteria and a process to be developed, according to new rules in the handbook.
In the past, it’s been the top seven students in the graduating class who spoke around a theme each year.
“It’s just to provide something that’s more meaningful, to be all-inclusive. There might be someone that’s sitting out there that has something profound to say,” Superintendent Michael Ghilani said. “You may have something really profound to say that could change someone’s life in that audience and giving them the chance to say that I think is important.”
The push for the change came from the high school administrative team, Scott Milburn, assistant to the superintendent for secondary education, told board members.
“They believe that the new procedure honors all students in the building, gives everybody a chance to participate,” he said.
Milburn, with recommendations from the high school administrative team, initially proposed three categories of speakers: the senior class president; a senior who earned a cumulative grade point average of 4.0 or higher at the semester break of their senior year; and any graduating senior who submits their remarks for review.
The submitted remarks were to be blindly reviewed by teachers, so they didn’t know who they were selecting.
Board members raised a lot of questions, though, and ultimately decided detailed criteria should be written to determine how students will be selected.
“When they’re reading, are they looking for content? Are they looking for creativity? Are they looking for experiences?” Board President Brian Fernandes asked. “That would be helpful for both us to understand and the public to understand.”
Not everyone might be a good writer, he said, but they could be a great speaker.
To that end, board member Jill Bertini said, not everyone is a good public speaker. She asked if the district was going to have students give their speeches as part of the selection process.
“Is it our aspiration to have good speeches delivered well or it is a person who can write well and deliver them so-so? It’s just food for thought,” she said.
Suzanne Downer, first vice president, questioned if the board wanted to make the change this year, or wait another year until class rank will be eliminated at TJ and do it all at once. The ultimate decision was to do it this year.
However, board members and administrators alike agreed there needed to be more discussions to come up with the criteria to ensure that the process and selection truly are inclusive. The handbook now has a basic definition of who will speak.
“We are developing new criteria. It will be based on that. We’re not telling them what it is yet. We’re taking our time to do it right,” Fernandes said.