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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, June 8, 2006

BKW won’t change alma mater, will change top honors

By Matt Cook

BERNE — While the school board is close to changing one Berne-Knox-Westerlo tradition, another is holding strong.

At a meeting on Monday, the BKW School Board discussed a plan to replace the graduation honors for the valedictorian and salutatorian, and considered adding the word "Westerlo" to the school’s alma mater, which was written before part of the town of Westerlo was added to the Berne-Knox School District. The former proved more popular than the latter.

Alma mater

The meeting began with a choral performance by BKW students. Unaccompanied, they first sang an arrangement of the original alma mater. Next, they sang it with the word "Westerlo" inserted after Berne-Knox.

The board asked the students which version they preferred. Two spoke up, both from Westerlo. One said the Westerlo version sounded too rushed while the other said it fit the music better.

Mitch Haverly, a long-time BKW music teacher, now retired, wrote most of the arrangements of the alma mater the school uses. He told the board the words were written by the late Mary Vida Knowles, a member the class of 1939, the first graduating class. Knowles’s words were chosen in a contest, Haverly said.

When he spoke to her before her death, Haverly said, Knowles (then Mary Vida Buckley) told him she set the lyrics to the tune of a song that was popular in the thirties. However, Haverly said, he hasn’t been able to find that song.

To change Knowles’s words without her permission would be disrespectful, Haverly said.

"I just feel it’s a personal affront to change something she wrote after she’s dead," Haverly said. He added, "as someone who writes music."

Board member Karen Storm said the board should focus on more important issues. If the district wanted to change the alma mater, it should have done it in the seventies, when Westerlo was added, she said.

"I think this whole idea of changing the alma mater so the name of Westerlo is added to it is because we, as a board, made a decision to close the Westerlo school," Storm said. Board member Edward Ackroyd said he completely agreed with Storm.

The school board angered many Westerlo residents last year when it closed the elementary school in Westerlo, citing dropping enrollment.

Maureen Sikule, the only board member from Westerlo, spoke in favor of the new version.

"I just want to say that, when I’m at sporting events and I hear that alma mater and my kids are not included because they’re from Westerlo, I think that hurts them," she said.

Board Vice President Joan Adriance said she grew up in the town of Chester but went to Warwick High School. She never felt excluded by the alma mater, she said.

Sikule proposed that the board charge the district administration with devising a method for finding out where the community stands on the issue, but her motion was voted down, 3 to 2. Only Sikule and board President Janet Finke voted in favor.

Graduation honors

Reporting on behalf of the graduation honors committee, high school Principal Mary Petrilli recommended replacing the valedictorian and salutatorian designations with a medal of academic excellence for top students.

The board voted in February to follow the lead of area suburban districts and eliminate honors for the first- and second-ranked students in the graduating class—starting in 2010— in favor of something more inclusive.

According to the committee’s plan, students with a 93 percent average or above would receive the medal of academic excellence. In addition to receiving a medallion, the honored students would lead the commencement procession with the class officers, sit with the class officers in the front row, and be listed separately on the graduation program. One award recipient, chosen by an ad hoc committee of students, teachers, and the principal, would deliver a speech, the plan says.

The only board objection to the committee’s plan was made by Sikule, who said the method for choosing a speaker is "too subjective." She proposed that the students who are interested submit their names, and one be chosen at random.

The board asked Petrilli to run Sikule’s proposal by the committee. Petrilli said she thinks they will probably approve of it.

The board will vote on the issue in two weeks, on June 19.

In the class of 2006, nine students will finish with a 93 percent average or above, Petrilli said.

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