The Eden Prairie School Board tonight appears to be ready to consider the future of an Eden Prairie High School (EPHS) policy eliminating a popular academic graduation honor. Many parents, and their students who have worked for years to attain the honor, have expressed their disapproval of the policy.
Although the change was codified in the most recent school handbook released last summer, many students only discovered the change on Nov. 30 when EPHS Principal Nate Gibbs emailed seniors to explain the decision.
The resulting anger and backlash have sparked criticism of the administration’s decision to withhold the honor, and a widespread call for the honor to be reinstated.
Graduating EPHS seniors have traditionally been able to earn a variety of honors and are presented with corresponding colored cords, stoles, and medallions to wear to the graduation ceremony over their gowns.
There are academic, service, and program honors designed to recognize students’ hard work, achievement, involvement, and leadership.
For academic honors, gold cords are awarded for a 3.9 or higher grade point average (GPA), and silver cords are awarded for a 3.75-3.89 GPA.
In the past, red cords and “Honors Diploma” status have been awarded to students who earned a 3.5 or higher GPA and took at least six credits in the following groupings: Advanced Placement (AP), College in the School, and/or most Project Lead the Way credits. Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) courses that closely matched AP, CIS, or PLTW courses were also recognized.
Gibbs’ email said that the school is keeping the gold and silver cords and scrapping the red cords.
“When Red Cords were first introduced at EPHS, a much smaller number of students participated in advanced courses. We’re proud to say that number has now grown substantially: In fact, 71% of EPHS students are taking at least one advanced course this year,” his email said.
“Because graduation cords are meant to recognize the most outstanding achievements of EPHS students, and since a majority of students eligible for Red Cords are also eligible for either Silver or Gold Cords, we will no longer award Red Cords.”
Carlondrea Hines, Eden Prairie Schools’ associate superintendent, said the administration felt the cords were no longer necessary because they had been used as an incentive to get students to take more advanced classes, and that as Gibbs said, this goal has now been achieved.
“The decision to have the red cords was for extrinsic motivation for students to challenge themselves to do more rigorous courses,” Hines said. “The decision to take that away is basically because the goal had been met.”
”Now we want to showcase and honor students as they are trying to maximize their high school experience,” she said. “With the new Pathways and capstone experiences, the team wanted to reevaluate how they recognize students for what they’re doing and how they’re experiencing high school.”
Negative reactions, demands to reinstate red cords
Many EPHS students in grades 9-12 reacted with shock and anger to the school’s decision to eliminate red cords, which for years EPHS has actively encouraged students to attain.
Since Gibbs’ email went out, Eagle Voice, an online platform where students can submit ideas and suggest changes to how the school is run, featured multiple polls with supporting votes calling for the reinstatement of the red cords.
Many parents were also upset. Jennifer Donnelly, who has an EPHS senior and an eighth grader, said, “This class of graduating seniors were freshmen when the pandemic started. They’ve gone through a lot, and they’ve persevered. Why take away honors that recognize positive behaviors? It just doesn’t make sense.”
Kelly Hopper, who has a senior at EPHS and a recent graduate, said for the school to say red cords are no longer meaningful because so many students are now taking at least one advanced class is flawed logic. “This isn’t for one class, it’s for six or more,” she said. “It’s hard to get that cord — it’s not like everyone is walking down the aisle with one.”
Hopper also noted that EPHS focuses heavily on rewarding athletic performance but should equally be championing academics. “There are multiple awards and honors for athletes, and so many opportunities to gain accolades,” she said. “But it’s also important to encourage children to pursue rigorous academics.”
An additional issue raised by students and parents is that EPHS does not weight student GPAs, so students do not get extra GPA points for more rigorous classes.
This means that students who take six or more advanced credits may find it harder to achieve a high enough GPA to be eligible for gold and silver cords than if they pursued less challenging academics. As a result, for many students, the red cord was the only graduation recognition they would have received.
Hopper said that in addition to disagreeing with the decision to remove the red cord honors, she felt that suddenly denying the cords to seniors as they are preparing to graduate is deeply inappropriate.
“You don’t get to change the rules at the end of the game,” she said. “For the students who have done all the work to earn these cords, this decision is short-sighted and unfair.”
Several parents of seniors told EPLN it feels especially unreasonable because their students decided to take extra advanced classes during their extremely busy final high school year, specifically to qualify for red cords.
“I think this is an example of poor leadership, poor support of the student body, and a poor representation of Eden Prairie Schools,” Donnelly said. “I really want the school to reconsider this decision this year and moving forward for all other students.”
Students and parents have argued that any changes to honors should not be made for students currently enrolled at EPHS, including ninth to 11th graders taking advanced classes. The red cord honors were still in place when all of those students registered for high school classes last spring.
The red cords are not the first honors to be quietly eliminated by the school. Students and families have complained that other groups have had their recognition removed or downgraded in recent years.
“I believe the honors that were offered or recognized in the past should be offered now and in the future,” Donnelly said.
‘Administration is listening’
Donnelly said she wrote an email to Gibbs to complain about the removal of the red cords, and that he responded.
“He said he was going to have meetings with students regarding the cords, he’s weighing the perspectives of both the seniors and families regarding this, and plans to have an update before break (which starts Dec. 23),” she said.
Of the widespread negative responses to eliminating red cords, Hines said, “Students have expressed concerns, and the administration is listening.”
Midday on Monday, Dec. 12, the updated agenda and materials for the 6 p.m. board meeting were posted on EP Schools’ website.
An item on the Superintendent Consent Agenda, which will be discussed at approximately 8 p.m., indicates that changes to pages 6 and 7 of the EPHS handbook will be discussed and submitted for board approval. These pages deal with graduation honors, including red academic recognition cords.
Although handbook changes have not yet been approved by the board, the language on the online handbook has already been updated to reinstate red cords for the class of 2023 only.
The language, which can be viewed on page 83 of the board materials, is as follows:
“Red cords will be awarded to the class of 2023 students if they have completed 6 or more courses with a GPA average of 3.5 or above in the following course domains: CIS, AP, PSEO, Dual Enrollment College Courses. Designation of gold, and silver, red cords will be determined at the end of term 3. Students receiving academic recognition as noted above will be Honors Graduates, receiving an Honors sticker on their diploma.”
The language does not mention other graduating classes.
Anyone who would like to follow the board discussion can attend the meeting in person at the Administrative Services Center, 8100 School Road, or view it on Zoom using this link.
Editor’s note: This story was updated with information added to the agenda of tonight’s Eden Prairie School Board meeting.
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