Western to review graduation policy

Gaetana Vitale was excited to start in the fall at Anne Arundel Community College studying pre-veterinarian science — until she says she was told the decision would cost her an opportunity to walk across a stage in front of her friends and family to receive her diploma from Western High School.

So Vitale, 17, said she made a "last-ditch effort" to get an acceptance letter from a four-year college, Coppin State University, by May 1 to participate in the school's graduation ceremony, a longstanding requirement that Western school leaders said they will review this year to decide whether it should continue.

Michael Sarbanes, spokesman for the school system, said the school's principal will not enforce the requirement this year, though it was unclear when that decision was made.

"It was such a good thing I got into Anne Arundel County, but they needed a four-year college," said Vitale, who will attend AACC. "Coppin was a consideration, but it was really a last-ditch effort. In walking across the stage, I've officially finished. My family needed to see how much I've done and how much I've accomplished."

Western's longstanding practice of preventing students who have been accepted to two-year colleges from participating in the school's graduation ceremony is not common in the city. None of the city's other college-preparatory schools, such as City College, Polytechnic Institute and Dunbar High School, have a similar practice.

Sarbanes said the requirement has been a school-level decision that the new acting principal, Alisha Trusty, will discuss with the school community.

However, he said, the practice ensures that students take the college acceptance process "seriously throughout the year."

He said students are informed that it is part of graduation requirements. Parents said the deadline to submit proof of an acceptance to a four-year college was May 1.

"We want students to have really high expectations for their future and strive, so some schools set an acceptance at a four-year institution as what they want their students to achieve at the end of the year," Sarbanes said. "And walking is an incentive to do that. That's kind of part of the deal that gets made with the senior."

Western was designated a 2009-2010 National Blue Ribbon School and routinely places all of its students in college. Its graduates include state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

The revelation about Western's graduation practice comes on the heels of several controversies at the nation's oldest all-girls public school. The principal has canceled the senior banquet and said in a letter it was because of several pranks that have gone too far, including "poisoning our drinking water with medication and substances that are unknown to us," and "coating steps, hallways and doorknobs with slippery and unknown substances." Students reported that bleach and laxatives were placed in water coolers, and baby oil smeared on staircases. In the letter, she did not rule out canceling graduation or prom.

In addition, Western recently acknowledged that a handful of students may have had their college acceptances compromised because the school failed to send transcripts to colleges, including several Ivy League institutions.

Sarbanes said it was not clear whether students affected by the college application mishap would have been penalized by the May 1 deadline to submit proof of college acceptance.

"If a student who is in this position were affected by some of the inaction in the guidance office, then the school would take a common-sense and fair approach to that," he said.

Gaetana's father, Sal Vitale, said he mailed her transcripts to the four-year Coppin State in mid-April to make the May 1 deadline.

"Graduation is just so important," he said. "It's a steppingstone of your adult life."


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