Honorable Discharge

January 01, 1999 4 min read

Under the national group’s guidelines, teachers judge students on grades but also on character, leadership, and community service--three factors that Indian Prairie officials concluded were too subjective. In a large high school, “it is difficult to know all the kids,” explains Gail McKinzie, superintendent of the 19,400-student system. “It comes down to how well someone sells himself on paper.”

Indian Prairie’s action is something of an aberration--membership in the NHS is growing--but it’s a sign of new tensions within the group. In fact, the venerable society has been dealt a number of whacks in recent years, largely over the nonacademic judgments it requires schools to make about students.

But those judgments are what the group is all about, NHS officials say. “There’s no desire in this organization to reduce its selection criteria to grades,” says David Cordts of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, which has run the honor society since its creation in 1921. “The founding fathers said it’s got to be more than that.”

The society’s bylaws require that member schools form a panel of teachers--known as a faculty council--to review applications from students with a cumulative GPA above a B average. These students are then judged on their extracurricular activities, with attention to leadership, service, and character.

These guidelines have caused trouble for some local NHS chapters. Several have been sued by students who say they were blackballed. One boy filed suit saying he was rejected because his father had criticized the school administration. And in a recent high-profile case, two teenage girls at Grant County High School in Williamstown, Kentucky, claimed they had been denied National Honor Society membership because of premarital sexual activity. Though lawyers for the local school district say Somer Chipman’s and Chasity Glass’ 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 the district discriminated against the girls.

Sara Mandlebaum, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, says a school can’t simply reject a girl “who becomes pregnant and decides to keep the pregnancy.” If schools do that, she argues, they must also ban unwed fathers or girls who have had abortions. “It gets into these inquiries that school districts shouldn’t be in,” she says.

In 1997, the honor society revised its handbook to help local chapters handle the review of the subjective criteria. The new guide specifically states that a local chapter cannot reject an applicant simply because the person is pregnant or an unwed parent. “You need to be able to substantiate your judgments,” Cordts says, “by being able to substantiate the criteria unsuccessful applicants do not meet.”

Legal action didn’t prompt the Indian Prairie district to shut down its NHS chapter. When Waubonsie Valley High’s principal and guidance counselors recommended this past summer that the school disband its NHS chapter, superintendent McKinzie concurred. “I don’t know if you can be a high school principal and not suffer through National Honor Society selection,” says McKinzie, a former principal. “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.”

Concerned that its new honor society might not carry the same weight with colleges as the national group, the district surveyed admissions officers and found they had few reservations. Officials at nearby New Trier High School report a similar response to their honor society. Like McKinzie and her staff, administrators at the highly regarded Winnetka, Illinois, school don’t want to judge the merits of students’ extracurricular activities and behavior. “It muddies the water trying to tie in character,” says principal Wesley Baumann.

Colleges seem satisfied with New Trier’s honor society, which recognizes students with 3.2 GPAs and those 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,” Baumann says.

Although controversial in some places, the National Honor Society is thriving in many others. In Michigan, the number of NHS chapters has jumped over the past year from 183 to 329.

Precise figures on NHS growth nationally aren’t available, though Cordts says the society has an estimated 650,000 members. He acknowledges that he occasionally gets calls from administrators and parents who don’t like the subjective nature of the NHS selection process. But he gets more calls from people who want to thank him for “not just being an honor roll.”

“I get that kind of compliment once a month or so,” he says.

--David J. Hoff

PHOTO: Blackballed?: Students Somer Chipman (left) and Chasity Glass
--AP/Wide World