By Kim Hilsenbeck
As Hays CISD high schools head into the home stretch and plans for graduation, the announcement of the senior class’ valedictorian and salutatorian is generally cause for celebration.
In the case of Lehman High School, the notification of the top two spots this year was almost cause for a lawsuit.
Principal Michelle Chae sent a letter on May 11 via email congratulating Olivia Marzullo as the 2014 valedictorian and Kristen Jefferson as the salutatorian. The email went to all Lehman High families.
“CONGRATULATIONS to Olivia Marzullo, our 2014 valedictorian, and Kristen Jefferson, our 2014 salutatorian!” the letter said. “These two, along with their classmates, have worked diligently throughout their high school careers to achieve this honor. We are proud of the integrity, wisdom, and pride they have both demonstrated.”
Olivia’s brother, Devin, was Lehman’s 2013 valedictorian. On May 3, the principal of Chapa Middle School, Lisa Walls, sent a note to the Hays Free Press about the brother/sister duo, thinking it might make an interesting story.
But on May 2, Kristen’s father, Shawn A. Jefferson, sent a letter to Chae because his daughter was informed that she would be graduating as the salutatorian, not the valedictorian as she thought.
The letter said, in part, “My concern is that, from Kristen’s initial ranking as a sophomore, until barely two months ago, Kristen has been ranked at the top of her class. I’m finding it a bit hard to believe that she has lost that ranking in the midst of two months when she is in all AP classes, other than two, and all of her grades have been and are in the mid to upper 90s, if not 100s. I hate to sound like an overbearing parent, but this does alarm me quite a bit.”
Jefferson asked Chae to “look into this matter to try to give us some understanding about this process.”
“I would just like to have this matter addressed as quickly as possible to ascertain if any mistakes have been made,” he wrote.
Jefferson attached several documents to that May 2 email, including previous progress reports and his daughter’s class rankings over the last several years. He also requested a Level 1 grievance meeting with Chae to discuss the class ranking issue. He asked the school to consider weighted and unweighted rankings. He also asked Chae to verify that all of his daughter’s teachers entered grades as required.
On May 7, Chae met with the Jeffersons. She responded to the Level 1 grievance with a letter to the family.
That letter affirmed, “The final senior ranking was accurately completed and verified by three different professionals prior to it being distributed to students.”
Chae documented in great detail the steps and procedures followed by the district to calculate grade point averages and class rank.
She also reminded Jefferson that he was welcome to submit a Level 2 appeal if he was still not satisfied.
Two hours after Chae’s May 11 email to Lehman families congratulating Mazullo as the valedictorian, Jefferson wrote an email to Superintendent Michael McKie, protesting the public announcement.
That letter said, in part, “I’m upset at the fact that Ms. Chae announced the valedictorian and salutatorian to everyone while fully aware that there is debate about the ranking process at this current point of time. That is why I, respectfully, kept her in the loop about the appeal, to avoid something like this from occurring.”
Jefferson lambasted Chae’s actions as “unresponsible” and later as “irresponsible”.
He alluded to a public relations nightmare, saying he and his wife “are tempted to proceed with seeking legal representation.”
He also requested a Level 2 appeal.
Four days later, Chae sent a second letter out to Lehman families, reversing the position of the top two students.
“We have discovered a technical error that made an impact on the calculation of the 2014 final senior class ranking and designation of the valedictorian and salutatorian. As a result, Kristen Jefferson is designated as our 2014 valedictorian and Olivia Marzullo is our salutatorian.”
Chae’s letter continued, “Hays CISD is currently investigating the cause of the miscalculation with the district’s grading software vendor to rectify the problem.”
Hays CISD spokesperson Tim Savoy said Monday evening that the software used by the district to calculate class rank, called TEAMS Prologic, did not include Kristen’s AP algebra grade from Chapa Middle School, which was a weighted class that counted toward her GPA ranking.
“On behalf of Lehman High School and Hays CISD, I would like to extend my sincere apologies to Kristen, Olivia, and to their families and friends for the emotional discord this has caused,” Chae wrote. “It was never our intent for anyone to be hurt by this process or discovery. From academics to extra-curriculars, Kristen and Olivia are role models who bring great pride to their families, Lehman, and our community. We wish them much success and happiness in the future and look forward to recognizing them and their peers in the upcoming weeks.”