Ever since Modesto High School began its International Baccalaureate program in 1998, the IB graduates sat in the front row during the school's commencement ceremony.
Come the June 3 graduation, the IB students still will be distinguishable by their specific shoulder stoles and cords, as will the California Scholarship Federation and AVID students. But instead of being in their customary place up front, they'll be seated alphabetically among the rest of the graduating class.
A committee of administrators and teachers tentatively — and quietly — determined this after the 2009 ceremony, but announced it to the students only a couple of weeks ago.
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The issue is this: Should the IB and other honors students be separated from other graduates? After all, the 72 IB students spent four years performing at an accelerated level to complete college freshman-level courses while still in high school. The students conceivably could go on to complete their college undergraduate degrees in three years. Modesto High is one of just 2,949 schools in 139 countries with IB programs. It is special.
Many of the IB students also are members of the California Scholastic Federation, which recognizes outstanding students. AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination), the third group, includes talented students who will become the first from their families to go to four-year colleges and, in some cases, be the first among their relatives to graduate from high school.
So as you can see, these groups collectively represent the school's highest achievers.
For many others, though, simply graduating from high school is just as important to them as the honors are to the IB, CSF and AVID kids. They, too, will be proud Modesto High alums.
Hence, the debate. The reactions on campus range from anger to applause, and that's solely among the honors groups and doesn't include the nonhonors population or parents who have weighed in pro or con.
Anger prompted Claire Thomas, an IB student headed to Whittier College in the fall, to post an online petition opposing the change. A portion of it reads:
"These students have worked their hardest during their stay at Modesto High School, and earned the special privilege of 'graduating' first.
This tradition is now in jeopardy. The young administration of Modesto High has decided to strip the distinguished scholars of their graduation privileges, forcing them to be called up to the stage for their diplomas strictly in alphabetical order, completely disregarding the work they have done for the school, and further stripping them of the special acknowledgment they worked for and wholly deserve."
The problem with online petitions, as she quickly learned, is that anyone can "sign" them anonymously. While some supported her petition, many of the signers posted comments that are flat-out vile. One of her Facebook posts drew 136 comments, some critical of her opinion.
Call it a civics lesson in our online world. But hey, Claire expected some ridicule when she made the postings.
"If you can't take it, don't dish it out," she said. "I'm a Type-A (personality). When I believe in something, I don't care."
Michelle Couchman, also an IB student, supports her friend and sees this episode as a learning experience.
"It's an example of real life," Michelle said. "You have an opinion and you stand up for what you believe."
Some of their honors classmates agree on Claire's right to take a stand. They don't agree on the stand itself. These others not only are fine with changing the seating arrangement; they applaud it.
"I think it's more uniting," AVID student Lauren Schmidt said.
"There's always been a distinction," AVID student Rosa Stanley added. "This kind of breaks the barrier. I don't think they joined IB just to sit in front at graduation."
IB student Ben Mesches said being in IB is an honor within itself.
"My feeling is that we're rewarded by getting the skills that prepare us for college," he said. "We don't need more than that. We're getting a high school diploma — not an IB diploma."
And, he said: "There's a lot of talk about how the IB kids are elitists. That's not the reputation we in IB want to give ourselves."
Michael Adkins, an IB senior, said the ceremony is a recognition of success and achievement.
"It's a little biased to recognize only academic successes when there's a whole slew of achievements out there," he said. "There are people in regular classes who had to work a whole lot harder than I did."
Carlos Tamayo, who is in AVID and also a part-time IB student, said having the honors students sprinkled throughout the crowd in their respective garments, "shows how diverse this school is."
Perhaps not equal in academic achievement, but no longer separated during graduation, either.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2383.