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Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Venerable National Honor Society Catching Flak From Some Quarters

Venerable National Honor Society Catching Flak From Some Quarters

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For the first time in decades, there will be no members of the National Honor Society next spring among the 850 or so graduates of Waubonsie Valley High School in suburban Chicago.

Instead, any senior with a grade point average higher than 3.6 will be inducted into the newly minted Indian Prairie Scholars--a society district officials created to replace the national organization they found to be too much of a headache.

Selecting members of the new group will be simpler than choosing inductees for the National Honor Society, administrators say. Teachers will be spared from making subjective judgments about students' character, leadership, and community service. Candidates for the national group are rated on those factors in addition to meeting a minimum grade average.

"Three of the four are pretty much subjective," Superintendent Gail F. McKinzie of the 19,400-student Indian Prairie school district said of the criteria for nhs membership. "With this size of high school, it is difficult to know all the kids. It comes down to how well someone sells himself on paper."

Indian Prairie's action is unusual. Officials of the National Honor Society, in fact, say their membership is growing. But in recent years, the venerable institution has been dealt a number of whacks, in large part because it's refused to bend the rules.

"There's no desire in this organization to reduce its selection criteria to grades," said David P. Cordts, the associate director for student activities at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, which has run the honor society since its founding in 1921.

"The founding fathers said it's got to be more than that," Mr. Cordts said. "That's when they came up with leadership, service, and character as the three criteria."

The organization's bylaws require a panel of teachers--known as a faculty council--to review applications from students with a cumulative GPA above 85 percent, a B average, or 3.0 on a scale of 4.0. Applicants are also judged on their extracurricular activities, with attention given to their leadership, service, and character.

Faculty councils can avoid problems, Mr. Cordts said, if they clearly explain what it takes to satisfy the requirements in the subjective criteria and spell out why some excellent students fail to meet them.

Local chapters can find guidance in selecting their members in the National Honor Society's handbook, but the organization gives its approximately 15,000 chapters wide discretion in doing so. An estimated 650,000 students are members of the society.

Problem: Pregnancy

The honor society revised its handbook last year to help local chapters understand how best to handle the review of students' leadership, community service, and character.

One of the issues it addresses is pregnancy. The handbook specifically says a local chapter cannot reject an applicant simply because she is pregnant or he or she is an unwed parent.

"You need to be able to substantiate your judgments by being able to substantiate the criteria [unsuccessful applicants] do not meet," Mr. Cordts said.

Local chapters have been the targets of lawsuits accusing them of discriminating against pregnant girls, penalizing a boy for his father's complaints against the school administration, and ostracizing a girl who refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance in homeroom.

In the most recent case, the faculty council at Grant County High School in Williamstown, Ky., rejected two teenage girls--one an unwed mother; the other, eight months pregnant at the time.

While the district's lawyer said the girls' out-of-wedlock pregnancies played no factor in the faculty council's decision, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in August charging that Somer Chipman and Chasity Glass had been discriminated against.

The district's decision was based on bias against Ms. Chipman and Ms. Glass, according to Sara L. Mandlebaum, a senior staff attorney for the legal-advocacy group's Women's Rights Project, which filed the suit.

"They could implement the criteria in a much more subjective way," Ms. Mandlebaum said. "They can't just say who becomes pregnant and decides to keep the pregnancy" should be disqualified from membership in the honor society.

If schools do that, they also must consider whether boys who are unwed fathers or girls who have abortions should also be kept off the society's rolls, she argued. "It gets into these inquiries that school districts shouldn't be in," Ms. Mandlebaum said.

It didn't take a lawsuit or even the threat of one for the Indian Prairie district, which serves Naperville and Aurora in Chicago's western suburbs, to shut down its National Honor Society chapter.

When Waubonsie Valley High's principal and guidance counselors recommended this past summer that the school disband its NHS chapter, Superintendent McKinzie concurred.

It wasn't just the subjectivity that persuaded her. Parents would call to complain if their child was overlooked by the faculty committee that selects members, Ms. McKinzie said.

"I don't know if you can be a high school principal and not suffer through National Honor Society selection," said Ms. McKinzie, a former principal in Des Moines, Iowa. "You get into somebody calling up and telling you all the negative things about someone else. That really takes its toll on counselors and deans who are involved in this."

Ms. McKinzie said other school groups, such as the student council, will pick up the service project the honor society performed. The college-admissions officers the district surveyed said the local honor society would carry as much weight as the national group.

Moreover, Ms. McKinzie and her associates only had to look at their colleagues at nearby New Trier High School, which hasn't had a National Honor Society chapter. Officials there reported no difficulties among college-bound students.

Like Ms. McKinzie, the principal of the highly regarded Winnetka, Ill., school doesn't want to be bothered with making judgments about the merits of students' extracurricular activities and behavior.

"It muddies the water trying to tie in character and academic achievement," said Wesley A. Baumann, who adds that New Trier has never had a NHS chapter that he knows of.

He fielded a question from a parent earlier this month about why a student wouldn't be eligible for the National Honor Society, but such inquiries happen "not even once a year," he said.

A College Boost?

And college-admissions officers appear to be equally impressed with New Trier's own honor society that recognizes students with 3.2 GPAs and students graduating in the top 10 percent of their class.

"If a lot of colleges said that [the National Honor Society] was important to them, we would want to have it," Mr. Baumann said.

Students whose schools are part of the National Honor Society win a small boost in the college-admissions process, according to one director of admissions. But applicants who don't have NHS membership on their r‚sum‚s can make up for it with other activities.

Applicants need "any distinction ... [they] can bring to themselves, but that could be any accolade for academics or contributions to their community," said Linda M. Clement, the director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland in College Park. "There's an understanding that members of the National Honor Society represent students who are high achievers but also are good citizens."

Growth Potential

While some places have faced controversy over the honor society, others are actively promoting it. For example, through aggressive marketing, Michigan's state chapter has increased the number of local NHS chapters from 183 to 329 in the past year, according to Tonya R. Chmielewski, the director of student leadership for the Michigan Association of Honor Societies in Lansing.

To spur the growth even more, Ms. Chmielewski has organized a series of seminars and conferences for students and advisers, telling them how to run their programs.

Precise figures on the level of growth at the national level aren't available, though Mr. Cordts said he regularly hears from schools wanting to start local chapters of the honor society. He also gets calls from school administrators and parents who complain that the subjective nature of selection bothers them.

"I have a greater number who call in and say: 'Thank you for not just being an honor roll,'" he said. "I get that kind of compliment once a month or so."

Vol. 18, Issue 13, Pages 1,12

Web Resources
  • Read an overview of the NHS' selection criteria.
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Correction: 
The quote from Sara L. Mandelbaum, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, should have said: "They could implement the criteria in a much more objective way."

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