Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Education

Students protest the passing of a tradition — special graduation robes for top achievers

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TAMPA — Abel Urdaneta has taken Advanced Placement and college courses throughout his career at Leto High school. He has a weighted grade point average of 6.8, he said, but "I'm sure it will go up."

He works at McDonald's 20 to 25 hours a week. He plans to be an aerospace engineer.

Now add activist to his resume.

After hearing Leto would abandon a tradition of graduating its top students in white robes, a "heartbroken" Urdaneta launched an online petition drive to reinstate the privilege.

THE GRADEBOOK: All education, all the time

"We have worked hard every single day so that we could graduate with honors and be celebrated on the day we walk across the stage," he wrote.

"For some of us, it has been the motivation for us to continue to apply ourselves in our academics."

Few rituals are as steeped in tradition as graduation, and controversies such as the one at Leto are more common than many people think.

In some communities outside Florida, school leaders concerned about transgender rights have ended a longtime practice of using one color robe for male students and a contrasting color for female students. Those moves invariably generate backlash and debate.

In Hillsborough County, the more common practice is to allow students with grade point averages above 4.0 to march in white.

Supporters consider it an earned reward. Detractors say it stigmatizes struggling students.

Wharton High principal Brad Woods said in 2013 that his students looked "like two different graduating classes" when some wore navy and others wore white. They now all wear navy.

Urdaneta said he learned of the change at Leto by questioning administrators about rumors. He said he did not hear the automated phone recording to parents.

"They want to be focused on equity at the school,'' said district spokeswoman Tanya Arja. "On being a Falcon family.''

Gaither High students, who used to use white honor robes as well, were hit with similar news this year. According to the student newspaper Pony Express, reactions were mixed.

"The majority of us feel very betrayed and upset by this decision, and feel as if our hard work isn't being properly recognized," senior Jill Dowden told the newspaper.

And they aren't being quiet.

"I don't step on Gaither's campus without hearing about the robe change,'' said School Board chairwoman Cindy Stuart, who has a daughter at the school.

Stuart said she has heard about lawyers getting involved, but did not have specifics.

Arja, after speaking with the Leto principal, said the school has no intention of slighting its top students.

Honor graduates will be called up first in the procession, she said. Their names will be listed differently in the program. They'll have a special breakfast. Seniors will be polled on what color the whole group should wear.

READ THE FULL LETO MESSAGE HERE:

And class leaders will design a stole that the top students can wear over their gowns. But Urdaneta wonders, instead of the special stole, why not just keep the white robes?

He understands the arguments about sensitivity and elitism, but still thinks some students deserve recognition. He knows one student who immigrated from Cuba at age 17, speaking little English. "And she managed to get a 4.0," he said.

While Arja said the Leto principal has received only one parent complaint, School Board member Susan Valdes — a Leto graduate — said she's received a lot more.

Valdes suggested that, rather than springing such a change on students in their senior year, schools might introduce it when they are freshman.

Urdaneta, meanwhile, has more than 1,000 signatures on his petition. And he has the support of Zakiya Grier, president of the Lennard High senior class.

Like Urdaneta, Grier has spent her high school years working and taking college-level classes to get ahead. She also runs track.

Until now, all Lennard graduates have marched in burnt orange gowns. Grier hopes to introduce white honor robes.

"We both want recognition for all the hard work that we've done," she said.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol

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