Alpine student takes district to court over class rank calculations

ALPINE – When Dalee Sullivan crossed the stage at Alpine High School’s graduation this May, she had the feeling she’d been robbed of something. From the outside looking in, Sullivan appeared to have accomplished much in her high school career; the senior had posted a 4.0 grade point average, was headed to the College of Charleston Honors College in South Carolina with scholarships in hand and was ending her high school career ranking third in her class. But the student couldn’t shake the feeling that her class rank had been miscalculated, and she was preoccupied with thoughts of her upcoming court date against the Alpine Independent School District.

Since April 28, Sullivan and her parents have contested her GPA with the school. While her traditional GPA is a flawless 4.0, the calculations used for class rank gives varying weight to dual credit classes, Advanced Placement classes, courses needed for graduation and more.

The family believed AISD had conflicting GPA calculation policies and were inconsistent with the classes included in her calculations. Her final transcripts sent to colleges she applied for left out most of her AP scores, and her final report card showed no grades for her final semester of classes.

So on Friday, the young woman took matters into her own hands and headed to court after filing for a temporary injunction against AISD. She believed she had a reasonable claim to the second or first place ranking at Alpine High School.

“The attorney willing to take on a school district quoted us $75,000, and that’s just a little too much money for an 18 year old to spend,” Sullivan said, laughing. Her father is a local goat farmer and her mother is a forensic interviewer for the Children’s Advocacy Center, and so the family agreed that the young high school graduate would represent herself in court.

Along with cheer, UIL science, social studies and public speaking, Sullivan has competed in Lincoln-Douglas debate over the past two years. Now she would put her argumentation skills to the test before Judge Roy Ferguson of the 394th Judicial District.

Sullivan explained the crux of her argument, saying, “As a student, it’s your job and your responsibility to take your classes, make the grades and get your education. It’s up to the school to make sure all of the formal things like documents are done correctly; people are paid to do that.”

She felt damage had already been done; Sullivan applied to eight schools but received admissions to only three. “If it looks like I took one AP class and got a 3, I can’t imagine anyone at a top university would give me any real consideration.”

At a virtual Zoom court date on Friday, she explained to the judge that her GPA had been recalculated four times since raising concerns in late April, each resulting in changes, but little transparency on how the numbers were reached.

Ferguson talked the teen through some of the legal process. While he couldn’t assist her by explaining some of the legal underpinnings required in presenting and admitting evidence, he did tell her to “lay the foundation” for the evidence and made sure the young woman understood what was taking place in court that day.

The district policy states that only classes taken for graduation are included for class rank calculations, but Sullivan alleged at court that the district, for example, counted her first semester of British literature but not the second in her GPA. In another instance, she alleges that her government course credit that was required for graduation was not counted, she said.

Sullivan also complained that the school had released the name of the valedictorian to local press while she was in the middle of disputing the calculations, and alleged she had not been invited to an awards ceremony where the valedictorian and salutatorian were announced. The AISD counsel, attorney Kelley Kalchthaler, objected to that notion on the basis of irrelevancy, but Ferguson overruled it.

AISD’s counsel stated that Sullivan and her family had engaged in conversations with the district, but had not followed board policy to try and remediate the case through the district’s official grievance process. Kalchthaler argued that the court was not a proper venue to resolve the issue.

The student claimed she and her family didn’t know about the documents that could be submitted to the district to file a grievance and have a formal hearing. Instead, the family had met with school administration informally on multiple occasions to attempt to resolve the issue. The district’s grievance process is a three-tiered policy that ultimately escalates to a hearing from the school board and an issued written decision.

Sullivan said that all her family was asking in court that day was for the court to order an independent third party audit of grade calculations to happen.

Ultimately, Ferguson did not oblige that request, nor the request for a temporary injunction against the school. Instead, he asked the school to accept the Sullivan family’s complaints in place of the first two steps of the grievance process. The judge ordered AISD to offer a written decision in response to the tier-two grievance within 10 days, and then Sullivan could appeal to the third and final tier, a hearing before the school board. AISD said during the court hearing that the grievance could potentially be heard during an August board meeting.

AISD Superintendent Becky McCutchen provided a written statement following the court hearing, expressing that the district was “gratified that the Court did not issue an injunction.” The district statement said that although they “respectfully disagree with the allegations in the lawsuit, we take student and parent concerns very seriously and will continue to address the student’s concerns.”

For Sullivan, the fight isn’t over. If the written decision from tier two does not satisfy her, she plans to pursue the final step in the grievance process. “I just want this to be right, and I’ve followed it this far, so I think I have to see it finished. If the school still refuses to make sure that policy is followed and that the recalculations are actually correct, I’ll definitely pursue further action on it.”

Judge Ferguson also told Sullivan and AISD that if the district’s grievance process isn’t satisfactory to the parties, either side can reconvene the court hearing and “continue on its merits.”

“It’s a really bitter end of four years of really hard work to know that I can’t even get an accurate GPA or representation of my high school career,” Sullivan said of the experience. “I told my parents that I didn’t even want to go to graduation, really, none of it seemed fair, but I made up my mind to enjoy it – you only graduate once.”