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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 28, 2008

Putting the “honor” in honor society

Ilustration by Forest Byrd

People hold different views on what forms good character and on who is a leader. This is abundantly clear to Americans now as our nation gears up for a presidential election. Some people think of our current president as a man of sterling character who has led our country through difficult times; others see him as morally bankrupt and unable to lead.

We’ve been thinking about character and leadership qualities this month not because of political conventions but because of admission to a local high school honor society.  We ran a story on Aug. 21 that Guilderland plans to review its procedure for admitting members. We wrote about a 2007 graduate who had not been admitted to the Tawasentha Chapter in her junior year of high school; she was told she was not accepted to the society because she lacked character and leadership skills.

“As a 16-year-old, being told by my school I didn’t have character was terrible,” she said.

Since the story ran, we’ve heard from parents of other students who were also rejected. We haven’t used the names of the students but we believe they have nothing to be ashamed of. The process needs to be changed.

One issue at Guilderland centers on access to records. According to advisory opinions written by Robert Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government — one in 2004 dealing with the Lake George Central School District and another in 2005 dealing with the Taconic Hills Central School — parents should be able to access their children’s honor-society records. We believe rejected candidates are entitled to know the reason why and should have a means of responding.

A more central issue is the admission process itself. According to the constitution of the National Honor Society, students are selected  “based on outstanding scholarship, character, leadership, and service.”  The selection of each member is to be voted on by a majority of a faculty council appointed by the principal of each high school.

To be admitted to the Tawasentha Chapter, candidates must have a grade-point average of at least 90 and must have completed at least 20 hours of service. The criteria for service and scholarship are easily established and clear-cut. But, as the co-advisor for the Tawasentha Chapter, Marilyn Davis, says of the other two: “I don’t think that you can avoid subjectivity when evaluating criteria of leadership and character.” She is right.

“Without those,” Davis asks, “where is the ‘honor’ in honor society?”

She’s right about that, too.

But what can be done to assure the students who are admitted demonstrate good character and strong leadership without rejecting those who simply may not fit the council views?

One Guilderland mother who called us this week said, after her child was rejected, she heard from a teacher who wrote favorably of his character, saying she’d like him for her own son.

While the student in our story says it was her conservative beliefs — that the United States should secure its borders and all who live here should speak English — that caused her rejection, a mother who wrote this week thought it might be her son’s liberal actions — participating in a peaceful demonstration when the United States invaded Iraq — that kept him out of the honor society at Schenectady High School.

A good solution would be to require each candidate to have a faculty sponsor for character and another for leadership. The teachers would write, providing concrete examples of these attributes in the candidate.  The committee’s role would be to verify the endorsements.

This way, there would be no chance of political views clouding selection and, importantly, the process would be more inclusive. More faculty members — those who know the students best — would be involved. The “honor” in honor society would not only be preserved, but also enhanced.

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