In early 2008, Kevin Skelly, then the new superintendent of PAUSD, reversed an earlier decision by the district and entered our high schools in the Newsweek "Challenge Index." The index is simple: It's the number of AP tests divided by the number of graduating seniors. Palo Alto had opted out of participating in the 2007 ranking.
According to Scott Laurence, a former principal at both Paly and Gunn, the contest would yield only "increased pressure on already stressed out students." Skelly did not share the concern about stress, deciding instead to advertise how our kids "stack up" against others. He wanted to "let folks know how good the Palo Alto schools are."
Looking back, this incident was a harbinger of things to come. The tragic series of suicides of Palo Alto high school students has propelled the issue of the emotional and mental health of Palo Alto's students into full view. Parents, mental health professionals, and academics in our community have all pointed to high levels of academic stress in Palo Alto high schools as a key factor in producing and exacerbating anxiety, depression, and other problems for students, and in undermining ties between students and teachers.
The evidence connecting academic stress to adolescent depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation is overwhelming. A recent study found that the effect of academic stress on suicidal thoughts is significant even when controlling for preexisting depression, which according to the study's authors may itself be caused by academic stress. Studies also show that pressure exacerbates depression in those who are predisposed to the illness.
Becky Beacom, health education manager at Palo Alto Medical Foundation describes academic stress as a "health issue" for students. Stanford has an entire academic center devoted to documenting the negative effects of academic stress on student mental health. A documentary film on the subject, "Race to Nowhere," has been showing to packed high school auditoriums nationwide. High achieving school districts in the Bay Area and around the country have taken steps to reduce academic stress, including steps such as limiting AP classes and even withdrawing from the AP program altogether.
Here in Palo Alto, it appeared that we were on track to finally address this issue. After the second suicide, Project Safety Net (PSN), sponsored by the City of Palo Alto, brought together stakeholders for a coordinated response. The final report recommended both increased mental health screening and services and structural reform of the schools to reduce academic stress, including concrete changes like moving final exams before the winter break and reducing the volume of homework. According to the report, "all elements of the educational system, including core principles, curriculum, policies, training, strategic plans, hiring and other practices" and not merely those addressed to mental health, are implicated in the crisis and must be reformed.
Yet Superintendent Skelly and the school district have focused exclusively on the mental health recommendations. Despite the evidence and in the face of a crisis, the district steadfastly refuses to deal with the core issue of academic stress. The school board couldn't even agree to adopt a revised calendar to move exams before the winter break rather than after it.
Skelly points to psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison's book about suicide, "Night Falls Fast," as support for the idea that stress does not play a causal role in suicide and depression. But Jamison doesn't say that. Rather, her book is replete with statements linking environmental stressors and related factors such as sleep deprivation to depression and suicidality.
In Palo Alto we have a $154 million well-oiled machine for producing academic stress and all its attendant problems, including a profound feeling among students of lack of community, connection, and caring adults. Stacked up against that are now a few social workers, some suicide prevention training for school personnel, "connectedness" programming, and a few fitfully and unevenly adopted initiatives.
It is as if we discovered that Gunn High School is contaminated with asbestos, yet instead of abating the hazard the school district decided to focus on screening children for lung cancer and issuing respirators to those who fall ill.
Parents are becoming increasingly frustrated with the district's leadership on this issue. At a Feb. 13th event sponsored by the Peninsula Interfaith Action at St. Mark's Church, district officials including Skelly made a jargon-filled presentation on "connectedness" that completely ignored student stress and school culture as issues needing attention. In response to parent questions, Skelly repeatedly insisted that the problem was "hard."
We would be making more progress if our district leadership were less impressed with the difficulty of the problem and more willing to make fundamental changes to solve it. The school administration has failed to adopt specific reforms recommended by PSN to reduce academic stress at our high schools. It has failed to engage with the experts at Stanford's Challenge Success even though they are right across the street from the district office. Skelly's views on academic stress are flatly contradicted by the best scientific and medical evidence, as well as by the experience of parents and students in our community. Worse, the district hasn't enforced those policies we already have, such as the existing ban on homework over holidays and vacations. And the district is jeopardizing its new mental health initiatives by letting individual schools decide what to implement rather than establishing consistent programs than can more effectively be evaluated.
We shouldn't have to struggle with the school district to acknowledge basic facts of life about our schools and our children. The school board should do the job that we elected it to do and hire leadership that will address the root causes of the crisis of which the recent suicides are merely the most visible part. It is well past time to enforce accountability for our elected and appointed officials. We can do better than this, as a district and as a community.
We invite anyone interested in pursuing these issues to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.