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Though the race of a student shouldn't matter at any public school in America in 2011, it matters to this story that former McGehee High School student Kymberly Wimberly is black.
Back in May, even though officials at her high school determined Wimberly's grade point average was the highest in her graduating class, and even though the superintendent of schools actually informed her she would be named valedictorian — the first black valedictorian at the school since 1989; a dream she'd been working for since grade school, and which she had fought to keep after finding out she was pregnant in her junior year — the high school principal came back a day after informing Wimberly's mother of the honor and told her they'd been mistaken. Another calculation had been made, taking into account the fact that the second-place student, a white student, had taken exactly one-half credit hour more than Wimberly. Given that, officials told her, Wimberly would have to share the honor with a white co-valedictorian.
With the help of Little Rock civil rights attorney John Walker, Wimberly filed suit in federal court on July 21, alleging that there was a pattern of racial favoritism at McGehee Schools, with teachers pushing whites into advanced-placement courses while blacks —who make up 46 percent of the student body — were encouraged to take "regular" classes. School officials, the lawsuit alleges, had taken away Wimberly's status as sole valedictorian because she was "an African-American young mother." The lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment naming Wimberly the sole valedictorian of her class, $75,000 in punitive damages, and "other relief to which she may be entitled." School officials, meanwhile, say the co-valedictorian status was solely academic and had nothing to do with race.
Bridgette Frazier is an attorney working with John Walker's firm on the Wimberly lawsuit. She said that attorneys for Wimberly tried to resolve the issue without filing suit in federal court. She said she finds Wimberly's experience disappointing.
"I can't believe this still happens in Arkansas," Frazier said. "I can't tell you how many people have called up our office after this story broke and said, 'that happened to me, or that happened to my niece.' "
Frazier said attorneys have since uncovered similar cases of disenfranchised black scholars in several places around the state. She doesn't buy McGehee Schools' explanation of why Wimberly wasn't the sole valedictorian, and believes a rule allowing for a student with more credit hours to share the honor with a student with a higher GPA isn't reasonable. "Her transcript says that she's number one," Frazier said. "They pointed to this rule, but the counselor is familiar with this rule, and the counselor is the one that always decides the GPA. With this rule in mind, the counselor declared Kymberly first. And then, a day later, the principal goes to the superintendent and somehow gets it changed."
Thomas Gathen is the superintendent of McGehee School District. Gathen — along with McGehee Schools as a whole and McGehee High School principal Darrell Thompson — was named in Wimberly's lawsuit. Gathen denies that Wimberly being made co-valedictorian was due to her race. He said the reason it came down to one-half credit hour was because Wimberly's GPA was less that 1/100th of a point higher than the next-highest GPA. Wimberly's GPA was 4.0943.
Gathen said there was a similar situation in 2006 in which four white students there were named co-valedictorians, due to "equivalent" grades. He said that he didn't know if he could adequately explain the GPA calculation method in layman's terms. "If two or more students have similar or equivalent grades," he said, "then you don't penalize one student because that student has more courses or credits than the other. ... By dividing the smaller units of credit into the points, you come up with a slightly different grade point average."
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