Kelsey Bundrick had been one of the top students in her grade when attending Bishop McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead. When the school closed its doors for good in June 2018, Kelsey transferred back into her home district, Mattituck-Cutchogue, from which her older siblings had all graduated.
As she transitioned into a new school to start her junior year, Kelsey thought about the possibility of earning one of the coveted top two spots as valedictorian or salutatorian. But she didn’t know how she would stack up against a new group of students, or how different teachers and their grading styles would line up to her learning.
“I figured I was just going to try my best at Mattituck,” she said.
Shortly before the pandemic closed schools across New York, Kelsey received a notification to stop by the principal’s office. Around the same time, Shelby Dufton received a similar notification. Shelby was hopeful it had to do with the class rankings. Her second-oldest brother, Jack, had earned salutatorian honors at Mattituck in 2016 and pushed her to follow in his footsteps.
“I usually don’t get called down to the principal’s office,” Shelby said with a laugh.
High school principal Shawn Petretti had welcome and surprising news for both. The were co-salutatorians, following valedictorian Jessica Scheer.
It’s the first time Mattituck-Cutchogue has awarded the title of salutatorian to two students, school officials believe. Across Long Island this year, Mattituck is the only district to have co-winners. (Brentwood, the largest district in Suffolk, awards a valedictorian and salutatorian for both its Ross Center and Sonderling Center).
Both girls said they were honored to share the title.
“I think it’s really nice because Shelby worked really hard for these four years,” Kelsey said, adding that she didn’t know when the announcement would be made, so she was surprised. “It makes sense. We had these different teachers and different grading. … We had similar GPAs and it’s like, how do you compare them when you come from a different school.”
Mr. Petretti said Kelsey and Shelby were “really neck and neck. All three were, really.” He added that the students and their families were supportive of the move.
When the girls talked about their accomplishments in March, Shelby noted how she was hopeful that they would both give a speech during commencement and share that community moment. At the time, she couldn’t have predicted the strange turn of events their senior year would take, ultimately leading to a split commencement ceremony Saturday to limit the size of the gathering and follow state guidelines.
Kelsey will give her speech during the first ceremony at 9 a.m. and Shelby will follow during the second ceremony.
“I think the three of us, we’ve really tried to build each other up — there’s no competition here,” Shelby said.
Jessica, who will speak at both ceremonies, agreed. “Yeah, we’re not out to get each other. We all just do our work, help each other and try to be the best we can be.”
Kelsey said she plans to draw on her experiences from leaving Mercy to how the class adapted during these past few months in her speech.
“I think I’m going to be talking about how change can actually be a really good thing and teach us a lot of lessons,” she said.
Shelby said on Monday her speech is still a bit of a work in progress. She said the last few months will influence some of what she says, but she also wants to remember the entirety of the Class of 2020’s time together. She said the last six year have been “really special and really great.”
The final few months of distance learning didn’t present too much of a challenge for Mattituck’s top three students, since their high school academic careers were largely winding down already. Jessica will attend Cornell University to major in biology. Kelsey plans to major in chemistry at Liberty University. Shelby will attend Dartmouth University to study music. She said the pandemic has actually given her more time to focus on music. She performs in a band called Audawind with her 16-year-old twin brothers, Ben and Sam. They record music at home and just released a single on streaming services Tuesday called “Dream You Have.”
As Saturday’s ceremonies, all three of Mattituck’s top graduates will represent a unique class that has experienced far more than most.
“Everyone really supports you in this community,” Jessica said. “It’s this whole family thing, because most of us have known each other since we were in kindergarten, or even before that. It builds this family for you so you feel supported.”
WITH KATE NALEPINSKI AND TARA SMITH