The Agony, Ecstasy of School Awards

Before 18 year-old Sara Smith graduated last June, she made multiple trips to the stage to receive multiple honors at Shalhevet High School’s awards brunch for graduating seniors. In addition to being named class valedictorian, she received the excellence in math award, two Bureau of Jewish Education awards and a plaque from Bank of America.

This June, talented and bright middle school and high school graduates, like Sara, will star in their own school awards ceremonies. They will walk up to the stage, amid hearty cheering by faculty and family, to receive awards for their achievements in such categories as academics, the arts, sports and menschlikhkayt.

At the same time, the majority of their classmates will sit and watch, walking away without any certificates, plaques, trophies or applause and likely feeling that their contributions have been inconsequential. Many might inevitably become less enthusiastic about attending graduation ceremonies and festivities.

That conflict is not lost on the award winners themselves.

“I really didn’t want it to be the Sara show — but it was,” said Smith, now completing a year of study in Israel and attending Brandeis University next year.

What, in fact, is the purpose of school awards? Do they provide a service to students by recognizing excellence in a positive and motivating manner? Or are they psychologically and pedagogically detrimental, polarizing students at what should be a unifying juncture in their academic careers by dividing them into winners and losers? And for those students attending Jewish day schools, are they in keeping with Jewish values and traditions?

“Nothing feels better than to acknowledge somebody who’s worked hard,” said Roxie Esterle, middle school principal of Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge. “But the issue [of awards] is just huge,” she added.

Administrators have to figure out, for instance, whether an award should be given to the highest achiever or the person who has made the most progress? Should it go to both a girl and a boy for their eighth-grade year or for all three middle school years?

To minimize the sting on those students not being honored, Heschel last year completely separated the awards ceremony from graduation, including not listing award winners’ names in the graduation program guide. All eighth-graders now stand together on equal footing to receive their diplomas.

Still, Esterle believes that awards are motivating for students.

“You get your best work out of them by helping them realize their potential,” she said.

For parent Lori Berthelsen, whose son, JJ, 15, graduated from Heschel last year with departmental awards in both science and math, as well as two others, recognition can be a plus.

“It really boosted his self-esteem to be acknowledged for how much he had contributed,” she said.

But for her daughter, Nicki, now 18, who didn’t receive a certificate of academic excellence at the end of 11th grade in any of her classes at Milken Community High School last year, the disappointment negated previously positive experiences in those classes.

“I’m really conflicted [about awards],” Berthelsen admitted.

Others, however, are not conflicted.

Awards have a place in an academic institution, specifically a high school, said Milken’s Head of School Dr. Rennie Wrubel. “People who do outstanding work should be recognized in some way,” she said.

Furthermore, she believes awards should be based not only on innate talent but also on passion, collaboration and the ability to make the classroom a more meaningful place.

At Milken, awards are presented at the senior siyyum (literally, completion) that takes place prior to graduation. But, Wrubel stresses, the school also provides multiple opportunities during the year — including art shows, dance concerts, poetry readings and community service projects — for many students to be recognized.

Wrubel believes that sometimes we create a culture of anti-intellectualism by always trying to make kids feel good about themselves.

“I think there is an important side to having students want to excel and to be rewarded for that,” she said.

But Bruce Powell, founding head of school at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, has a different view. While the school won’t graduate its first group of seniors until June 2006 and the official policy concerning awards is still being formulated, Powell feels that awards are not conducive to building character, and don’t mesh with the school’s philosophy and mission. He sees everything, including grades, as subjective, he questions how schools can fairly determine who should be recognized.

“When you start giving awards, what do you mean by the ‘best’ student?” he asked. “It’s a comparative term which means that nobody else is as good.”

Powell believes that almost all students have equal access to greatness and that they shouldn’t be honored for merely being given a “good genetic lottery number” in English or science, intelligence or kindness. In place of awards, Powell is considering having the faculty write a personal letter to each graduate, reflecting on how they see his or her special character traits and contributions.

Student recognition sends out a message about what a school deems important, according to Sara Lee, director of the Rhea Hirsh School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, who is ambivalent about awards.

“For Jewish schools, awards can’t be unidimensional,” she said. “They have to recognize service and Jewish values.”

And they have to be careful not to conflict with Jewish ethics.

“The same way we have to be careful about saying negative things, we also have to be careful about saying positive things because it can open the door to lashon hara [hurtful speech],” said Elon Sunshine, rabbi-in-residence at Heschel Day School in Northridge.

With that in mind and with the Jewish directive not to embarrass anyone, Sunshine still believes that awards can be inspirational and motivating for students providing they are presented carefully and respectfully.

Even with that kind of care, the process can hurt students and parents.

“In order for there to be winners, there have to be losers, and I don’t think that’s a message we should be putting on our children any more than the culture already does,” said marriage and family therapist Kathy Wexler, who teaches developmental psychology at Phillips Graduate Institute in Encino and maintains a private practice.

Wexler is especially opposed to giving awards to middle school students, who are struggling to master their environment.

“You want to emphasize what they’ve learned,” she explained, “and not how it compares to what everyone else has learned.”

She worries that awards erode intrinsic motivation for both winners and losers, of all ages.

Parent Bruce Gersh, whose three daughters, ages 9, 7 and 4, attend Adat Ari El Day School in Valley Village, agrees.

“My wife and I are more focused on developing well-rounded children than children who study for awards,” he said.

Gersh, in fact, recently moved his oldest daughter from gymnastics, which was becoming too competitive, to softball.

“We just want her to have fun,” he said.

Perhaps radio and television pioneer David Sarnoff realized this decades ago when he said, “Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people.”

So can anything be done?

Not according to Josh Krug, 18, who graduated from Milken last year as a multiple award winner and who currently attends Yale University.

“There are so many [competitive] things out there that even if you get rid of awards, it won’t make much of a dent,” he said.