Lakeside High valedictorian didn’t take her classes there

Lakeside High School in DeKalb County
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Lakeside High School in DeKalb County

Award highlights dual-enrollment course credits

Lakeside High School’s valedictorian won’t be giving a speech during Tuesday’s commencement ceremony at the Georgia World Congress Center. In fact, Neha Sehgal won’t even be there, organizers said.

Neha technically is the school’s top student, but she never took classes at the school.

She is taking dual-enrollment courses full-time at a college in Gwinnett County. Last year, legislators amended state law to make more students eligible to compete for a class' top spot, which likely helped Neha earn the distinction. School district officials said they were not able to connect The Atlanta Journal-Constitution with her. They said she enrolled at Lakeside during her sophomore year.

The change in the law is meant to include students who sought to take advantage of dual-enrollment opportunities through the state's "Move on When ready" program and earn college credit while still in high school, said State Rep. Robert Dickey, R-Musella.

“High schools receive all of the state funding for them, and they are part of that school, even though they may take a lot of their courses in dual-enrollment,” he said. “I understand the concerns, but I just don’t think at the end of the day we need to be excluding these young people … just for trying to get ahead.”

Sehgal’s absence breaks from tradition with high school graduation ceremonies. Most include a valedictorian speech from the class’s top student to encourage and uplift his or her classmates as they head to college or other endeavors. Those top honors also come with perks, from scholarships to automatic acceptance at some of Georgia’s top colleges, including Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia.

Tessa Whitaker, a senior at Lakeside, said she and several other students had been awaiting word about the school’s valedictorian after tabulating their respective grades and figuring they would be in the running. She was on a college visit on April 13 when she received a text from another classmate offering her a name she had never heard.

“At first, I didn’t believe it,” said Whitaker, who turns 18 on Saturday. “Prior to when we found out, there were four students, and we figured it would be down to us. We were trying to figure it out by looking at GPAs.”

Whitaker was the fourth-highest achieving student in her graduating class. She said she’s not sour on the experience, but added the rules should be better explained so that students are not blindsided.

Lakeside Principal Damian Bounds said he had a few students approach him with questions after he made the announcement. While he said he understands the concerns, the valedictorian selection is something that needs to be reconciled as more educational opportunities are extended to students.

“Times are changing,” he said. “Education has changed where students have a lot of opportunities that were not previously presented to them. Dual enrollment is becoming more and more popular, and more students across the state of Georgia opt out and take advantage of dual enrollment because, at the end of the day, it saves them money.

“Some students don’t understand the policy.”

As dual enrollment's popularity has risen, so has its controversies. In 2011, Cherokee County decided students could only receive the top honors if they attended classes at their high school after a student was named valedictorian and had never attended Etowah High School.

Instead of hearing from their highest-performing classmates, Lakeside High seniors will hear from their class presidents.

Dual-enrollment valedictorians

The amendment last year to the section of Georgia’s law on dual enrollment reads: “No local school system that receives funding under this article shall exclude eligible high school students taking one or more dual credit courses pursuant to this Code section from eligibility determinations for valedictorian and salutatorian of a participating eligible high school; provided, however, that this shall not apply to a high school student who moves into the local school system after his or her sophomore year and has not taken any courses on site at the participating eligible high school.”