Six years of studying every night until the early hours of the morning, working daily through lunch on homework and projects in a teacher’s classroom and abandoning high school extracurricular activities paid off for Naomi Lands.
Lands graduated at the top of her 2018 Reagan High School class, the Austin district’s only black valedictorian this year.
But the 17-year-old didn’t receive the accompanying fanfare or give the keynote speech at her graduation. She didn’t even know she finished first in her class until a month after graduation.
“I was sad I didn’t get valedictorian, but I was happy to be in the top three and be up on stage,” Lands said.
Due to a programming error, one of Lands’ advanced courses was weighted improperly, giving her a lower GPA, and mistakenly ranking her as No. 2 among her classmates. Reagan officials a couple of weeks ago notified Lands of her new rank, and they explained how it occurred on Monday night.
“I was really shocked and surprised. It took me by surprise,” Lands said. “I’m still a bit shocked about it. It hasn’t hit me fully yet.”
But Lands’ relatives said they wish she had been honored properly by the school.
“Without any fanfare or acknowledgement … they said, ‘after finalizing the grades, we have determined your daughter was the valedictorian,’ ” said her father, Richard Sterling Lands. “It’s an uncomfortable situation. We already had gone through the graduation. We’re not sure who knows, other than who we tell.”
District officials decided not to strip the student initially named valedictorian of the honor and instead to call both students valedictorians. Both will enjoy two semesters of free tuition at a Texas public college, a perk under Texas law for the highest-ranking graduate at each high school.
Because the district now is providing the first-year’s college tuition waiver to Lands, district officials tapped nonprofit Austin Ed Fund to provide the other student a grant to pay for her first year of college. Lands had planned to attend college out of state to pursue architectural engineering but now is considering Texas Tech University.
“We have apologized to the families affected and have recognized both students as co-valedictorian, as well as identified a scholarship solution that holds each student harmless,” Reyne Telles, executive director of communications at the district, said in a statement. “An extensive review of student records found that this was a unique and isolated case and no other students or schools were affected.”
School has often been easy for Lands, the granddaughter of longtime community activist the Rev. Sterling Lands. She skipped seventh grade because she was advanced in her studies and needed more rigor. Two weeks before her high school graduation, while still 16, she also graduated with an associate degree from Austin Community College, an early college program offered at some Austin high schools aimed at getting more low-income and minority students to attend college.
On Monday, she walked around her alma mater, carrying her graduation gown for a photo. Among her multiple decorative vestments and tassels boasting various accolades, her gold academic stole worn over her baby blue robe still bears the word “salutatorian.”
Lands stopped to look at it, wondering aloud if the school can reprint her another.