Just before her moment ended in front of a crowd gathered in the school library at Collinsville High, senior Gabrielle Numi smiled for one more photo to mark the day — a selfie with her admissions counselor from Eastern Illinois University.
With all of the attention on student athletes and the day they sign to play at the college level, some Collinsville High School teachers and counselors thought their academic stars deserved some of the recognition, too.
On Monday, they gathered in the library, decked out in purple and white balloon sculptures, to honor about 60 seniors who have earned college academic scholarships at the school’s first-ever Academic Signing Day.
The seniors, joined by their parents and friends, sat at a table covered with a purple CHS tablecloth, signing a special certificate and posing for photos with the principal and representative from their college.
“We’re just so proud of our academic champions,” said Karen Olsen, one of the counselors as she kicked off the event. “Congratulations. This is your moment.”
No one is saying that the athletic accomplishments aren’t deserving of attention. But school leaders say promoting student academic achievement should be just as important, if not more.
Academic Signing Days are growing in popularity across the country, but still far outnumbered by the coverage and fanfare surrounding high school athletic stars committing to colleges, signing letters of intent at school in front of family, friends and cameras.
Sure, high academic achievers have special honors awards banquets and ceremonies at the end of the year, and maybe their name and college of choice on a bulletin board near the counselor’s office. But the point is to acknowledge the success of not only getting into college, but earning an academic scholarship, in a very visible way, advocates say. That also can motivate underclassmen.
“We were noticing that very talented students that get academic scholarships, they really don’t get recognized,” Olsen said. “You have a 4.0 GPA, a $40,000 scholarship, and they don’t get any recognition for that accomplishment.”
Florida legislators went so far as to pass a state law a few years ago encouraging school districts to provide for a student “Academic Scholarship Signing Day” in a public event. The law designates the third Tuesday of April each year to recognize outstanding achievement of high school seniors accepting academic scholarships.
In San Antonio, thousands of students celebrate a college signing day each year at the University of Texas-San Antonio, wearing their college T-shirts for the event.
And President Barack Obama and his administration applauded such efforts, encouraging other schools to do the same to celebrate those earning academic scholarships and inspire other students.
The effects of such events last longer than a two-hour assembly, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said.
“It shows younger students that they can aspire to more than athletic greatness: They can be great academically, too,” Duncan wrote recently in his blog. “It shows them that academic excellence is just as worthy of cheers, shouts, and photo ops as athletic prowess.”
Nicki Patel, a senior at Collinsville High who will study biology at St. Louis University, said the college letter-of-intent signings for athletes are “so huge for them.”
“There’s a lot of attention on that,” said Patel, whose father sat next to her at the signing table, along with a SLU representative. “We need some attention, too.”
James Williams, an admissions counselor at Southeast Missouri State University, said he is getting more invitations in recent years for these types of events at high schools. He was on hand Monday to represent the college for multiple students attending, including a full-ride scholarship.
When it was Justin Mushill’s turn to be recognized, his mother, Renee Mushill, sat at the table with him for photos, looking at him and smiling as he announced his college and major — Ole Miss, to study pre-law.
“I think it’s wonderful,” she said afterward, as the crowd munched on cupcakes frosted in purple and white. While a lot of people marvel at athletes and their talent, “it’s cool to get recognized for academics, and the work put into that.”
Erin Arvizu, whose son Sean Callahan received a $20,000 renewable annual scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston, said without the scholarship, tuition would have been very difficult to afford.
“It’s been a long process,” she said. “This is a nice way to celebrate.”
School and district leaders hope to continue Academic Signing Day next year, and hope to include underclassmen in the invite to gear them up.
“Our athletes have had tremendous opportunities,” said Principal Eric Flohr. “But we really think the real meaning of school is academics.”