SHERIDAN — Brent Leibach knows where his top priority stands.
As Sheridan High School principal, Leibach appreciates extracurricular success on the court, gridiron and stage, but the most important area remains in the classroom.
That emphasis received a spotlight last Thursday during the school’s first ever Academics Above All event. There were 256 students who qualified for the honor by having at least a 3.75 GPA in the 2018 fall semester.
“This is what it’s all about,” Leibach said. “I love all the other stuff. Trust me I really do, but I get a kick out of this.”
Sheridan County School District 2 board member Arin Waddell — who also has two children attending SHS — had the idea to begin the celebration as a way to highlight academic achievements in all four grade levels.
Every student received a certificate after having his or her name announced and walking across the SHS auditorium stage. Students also were given an academic letter, the same way an athlete receives a letter for making the varsity roster in a given season.
SHS senior Nolan Billings was one of the 256 seniors recognized. He said it felt nice to be rewarded for academic success, something that doesn’t always happen.
Billings said the somewhat negative stigma associated with good grades seems to have lessened over the past few years.
“I think that a lot more people are putting emphasis on their academics, rather than just doing extracurricular athletics,” Billings said. “ … I think that could be changing. I’ve seen a lot more of my friends start to try harder with academics, even since we were freshman.”
“In this school, because we place emphasis on it, and our staff and students embrace it, I think it’s pretty cool,” Leibach said. “I think our kids feel like, ‘Hey, if I can crank a high ACT score and that gets me into the college I want, that’s really cool.’”
Billings recalled a bit of shock when he started high school and contended with the academic workload.
“I consider myself a little bit of a perfectionist and so I like to do the best that I can, and so there’s a little bit of stress in that,” Billings said.
Overall, though, Billings feels prepared for the next step of college, where he plans to study accounting and then attend law school.
Billings said the high school succeeds because of the instructors who encourage and invest in students.
“The vast majority of the teachers that I’ve had had really cared about how well you do,” Billings said. “ … They will meet you wherever you are and make sure you get to the point that they want you to be at.”
Leibach agreed and said a great teacher can make a tremendous positive impact on students, while a poor instructor can have a negative effect.
“The great teachers — you can’t replace those,” Leibach said. “They’re unique. And on the other end, the bad teachers — there’s a lot of damage that can be done there.”
SHS art teacher Ashley Cooper oversaw several students who designed the minimalist black and white T-shirts for the event that were handed to students. The font and design aimed to draw the eye because “ACADEMICS” was on three separate lines, requiring people to look at the shirt again to grasp its meaning.
Cooper said most high schools have a tradition of athletic-driven accolades, for better or worse.
“Sports are always the big thing,” Cooper said. “Looking back on your own high school career, you think about your homecoming game. When I was in high school, we never celebrated (academic) stuff like this.”
Leibach also said academics might receive less public attention than sports and arts because most classroom work occurs in private.
“I think the work that goes on every single day sometimes gets forgotten,” Leibach said.
Cooper remarked that good grades are not be the end goal of school, but it feels nice to receive recognition for doing well.
“This is just a better way to go about celebrating those kids,” Cooper said. “They didn’t know this (event would occur) at the beginning of the year, so they weren’t trying really hard, thinking like, ‘I’m going to get a free T-shirt because I’ve got a 3.75 (GPA).’ They were trying hard and showing some grit because it was important to them.”
Waddell hopes to continue the event and aims to host it at the WYO Performing Arts and Education Center in future years because the venue denotes prestige and signifies that academic achievements are important.
The event served as a way to recognize students who might go overlooked and placed emphasis on a vital yet sometimes overlooked aspect of high school: performing well in class.