Separating students at graduation seemed indefensible to me

To the Editor:

I raised the issue of graduation seating at my first school board meeting, May 22, 2018, during our issues-ideas-and-sharing period at the end of the meeting. At that time, it was suggested that the Guilderland High School Building Cabinet look into the issue and report back to the board.

At the time I brought this up, the relevant grade-point averages for determining graduation seating had just been released for the students I worked with as a volunteer, and a number of them were griping because of who would be sitting where.

Some of my kids had a 94.9 and weren't sitting on stage, while others who, allegedly because of easier classes, had a 95.1 and were sitting on stage. It was broadly acknowledged that it was dumb, the stage seating, but still somehow important for everyone.

The more I thought about it, however, the more the whole practice seemed to unsettle me, and that's why I suggested we abandon the practice in the pursuit of our broader goal of inclusion.

Everything our students experience at school sends a message. It seems shocking to me that the very last message we would be sending so many of our children, as they walk out of the tunnel into the University at Albany arena and see the chairs on the floor and the chairs on the stage, is that some of them aren't as good as others.

It seems even worse when one considers the criteria for separation: GPA, which is nothing more than a statistical artifice. What random fact about the Byzantine Empire does the student with a 94.9 not know that is preventing him from sitting on the stage with his friends? What teacher did he have grading his English essays in 11th grade, an inherently subjective exercise? What assignment did he miss four years ago that is still holding him back today, when he might be an entirely different person?

The GPA is so ambiguous; it tells me nothing about the student, and it certainly doesn't make any student better than any other (which is the implicit message we send with our current seating arrangement, elevating some over others).

Furthermore, this requested change is in line with others that the district has made in recent years. In July 2017, we eliminated class rank, our practice of ranking children based on their GPAs.

This was done for many reasons such as the fact that the decimal place on one’s GPA might go out three spaces, even though no teacher gives grades with any decimal. The difference between one spot and another might therefore be a hundredth of a percent that exists only because of our mathematical manipulations of stand-alone grades.

Also, there’s the fact that, with the GPA being the sole criteria, the focus of students was on grades, not learning, and that this causes a great deal of anxiety and stress, which is inconsistent with our mental-health initiatives. These same facts were also applicable to the decision to eliminate stage seating.

Finally, I will say that the focus on GPA is symbolic of much of what's wrong with education today, manifested in the last school experience that kids have, where the focus is on achieving some pre-set goal, instead of creating something new; a focus on meeting an outsider's criteria, rather than building your own educational experience.

As kids sit in the arena on graduation day, they should be reflecting on all that they've done; instead, as they look up at the students on stage, it can be all too easy to feel ashamed for what they didn't do.

The last message we give them is that they didn’t quite measure up, as if our outdated content standards are anything worth measuring up to.

In light of all this, separating students at graduation seemed indefensible to me. That's why I brought it up originally and followed up aggressively throughout the year.

I'm glad that the High School Building Cabinet came to agree with me; I wish we could have implemented this change starting this year, but I hope that more students will follow the lead of Sonal Swain (the presenter at the May 7 board meeting) and sit on the floor with their friends and classmates, making the fact that some are still sitting on stage even more absurd.   

Benjamin Goes


Editor’s note: Benjamin Goes, a 2014 Guilderland High School graduate, has been a member of the Guilderland School Board since May 2018.

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