In the essay, the teacher observes that the academic environment has become increasingly competitive over the years, resulting in students feeling more and more pressure to achieve success. The teacher recommends several steps the Palo Alto Unified School District, teachers, parents and students themselves can take to help teenagers cope with a faster-paced and more distracted 21st-century lifestyle.
The panel, moderated by Palo Alto Weekly Publisher Bill Johnson, included Becky Beacom, health-education manager at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation; Roni Gillenson, program director for on-campus counseling at the nonprofit Adolescent Counseling Services, which serves Palo Alto schools; Philippe Rey, executive director of Adolescent Counseling Services; Barbara Spreng, past president of the Santa Clara County-wide PTA and longtime community volunteer; and Palo Alto Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson.
Palo Alto Weekly: Our hope is to find what community members can take away from some of the observations made by this teacher. The most powerful thing about this type of piece is that it reflects somebody who's not a parent, who spends a lot of time with a lot of kids in our community and who takes the kids' perspective. You could take almost everything said here to any achievement-oriented community similar to Palo Alto. What's your reaction to the overall portrait drawn by this piece?
Becky Beacom: One of the things most important to my work is to try and give voice to all those kids, and this piece does that. The power of this piece was very moving to me. In the Youth Forum last year, we kept hearing, loud and clear, 'Who's listening? Nobody's listening.' When I started in this role at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation 15 years ago we went to a "stressbusters fair" at Paly. This is not new, but I think it has gotten worse. It's been heightened even though we've been trying to work on these issues.
Philippe Rey: There's nothing new in this text that we haven't heard. We usually send out a survey to parents and students at beginning of year. Because our 35th anniversary is coming up, we recently went through some of the archives and found the exact same thing. Kids feel stress and pressure; there's nobody to talk to, to listen.
Barbara Spreng: I think my gut reaction when I read it was, 'What's it going to take for this community to start paying attention to this and be willing to make some bold changes to address things?' I'm profoundly disappointed that our community hasn't been able to be more on the leading edge of how to teach our kids, give them the tools they need to handle the pressures they're under. When I talked to people all very caring, committed people they shared my concern, but we have this dynamic. If you're talking to somebody in the school district, it's all the pressure we get from parents to keep test scores up, or it's about the funding, or 'that's just the world of college applications. What are we going to do not let our kids do well enough to get into the top-tier schools?' Then parents turn around and say, 'It's that darn school district, that darn school board or those darn teachers who just don't care enough." People are just chasing their tails around this. And yet everybody knows there's so much research out there now about human development, the effects of stress and some of the things you can do. If you isolate the college application process people have identified it as a very significant contributor to the ramping up of the pressure with a feeling that you have to be a superstar athlete, a superstar academic we probably can't really effect a significant change in that process. But maybe we can help our kids develop more inner resources to cope with it. And then there are probably some things we could change: class schedules starting a little later, changing the calendar so we have finals before break. I don't want to give up and say, 'We can just give our kids a booster shot.'
Roni Gillenson: I've been the site director at Gunn for three years and was there during the recent suicides. What was impressive was the reaction of the student community, how they rose to the occasion to support each other. This was not surprising to me. (The level of stress) is one of those things that's frustrating and just goes on and on and on. There are so many pieces to it parents, students, teachers, the community, mental health services. I continue to be struck by the pressures within the students themselves. A 4.0 isn't good enough any more. A 4.5 is OK. It's difficult because there are pieces of this article pointing fingers at different parts, but it is really every part working together. You can take this article and match it to any other highly academic institution. I don't think it's just the parents or just the teachers or just the colleges. Even though I think the students are very supportive of one another, there's this competitiveness within themselves too. They are driven by this college application process and, ultimately, that's where they all want to be. And who has the power to change that?
Becky Beacom: There's only so much we can do to thicken their skin when the environment continues to be about summiteering. There's only so much we can do before we start looking at changing the pond water a little bit. I didn't see this article as pointing fingers at any school, just stating what is right now. We ask kids, 'What gives you stress?' And kids say, 'I do it to myself.' Many years ago I heard something very powerful at my son's orientation to the Young Fives program. The director at that time, Eleanora Jadwin, said, "Children won't question the expectation; they'll question themselves." That's not only true of 4- and 5-year-olds; that's true of teenagers. It's the pond water they grew up in. It's our responsibility to say, 'What can I do to help my community? What can I do to help kids? What can we do and what can we do fast?' It looks simple enough to say, 'Change some of these things,' but it's big for the district if we talk about school structures. We can talk about community structures, too.
Palo Alto Weekly: What about the role of teachers as caring adults?
Roni Gillenson: Some teachers are more comfortable than others being that trusted adult or available person. ACS is the on-campus counseling program, and that's where we try to come in, and also the guidance counselor. Where it's too much for a teacher, they refer them out. That's the system we try to have going. It can happen as quickly as a teacher calling a guidance counselor, or a teacher walking a student over to us. This author is saying that students need more trusted adults to talk to, and teachers need to be open to that.
Barbara Spreng: It's the same difference you find among human beings all over the place. Some people have a natural interest or the gift of understanding. Some people, it's just not their personality type to do that. If you look around the general population, some people are insightful, empathetic, comfortable asking and reaching out, and some are not. Teachers are just like everybody else. But because of their unique position of working with kids each day, they could benefit from staff development to give them some tools to use in that environment.
Becky Beacom: In the Youth Forum last year, students said, 'You want us to go to adults, but if we don't know them, we're not going to go to them.' They said, 'Get to know us in times when things are going OK and we're more likely to come to you when they're not.' It's about relationships and connections, formal and informal. The kids weren't saying, 'We want you around all the time.' They said, 'Just show us you care.' I think there are a lot of teachers out there who do notice (when a student is having problems), and they're getting burned out. They're fighting for some of these changes. The late start and the new block schedule at Paly is a perfect example of teachers mobilizing and trying to get it done. We'll see if it works, but kids finally can say, 'They listened.' Now the kids will have more time with their teachers, maybe they'll have more interactions. These things are structural. They mean a lot. They aren't just symbolic. That's a big change at that school.
Palo Alto Weekly: When there is a tragedy, to what extent should the administration allow grieving to occur on campus?
Roni Gillenson: At Gunn, the administration was very supportive not only of the students but of the teachers. There was a message of, 'We need to deal with this, talk about it, provide support.' It wasn't, 'We need to move forward.' We provided groups both for teachers and students; KARA (a grief counseling agency) came in for both. We made lots of things available. What's difficult is that we can't walk every student and walk every teacher over to the group. It was something (Gunn) provided. Even when teachers and students didn't come in, there was a space for it. Everyone handles grief in a different way, but the Gunn administration went above and beyond in making things available. Some ACS interns and I went into the classrooms where the kids had been because the teachers didn't know how to handle it and were themselves traumatized by losing a student in their class. The idea of not giving it attention is more for memorials, fear of sensationalizing it, (and encouraging) the copycat effect. We provided ongoing therapy and care and encouraged teachers and students to continue to talk about it.
Philippe Rey: Project Safety Net is one of the best things that's happened to this community. (A suicide) happened once. It happened twice. All of us were just flying, thinking, 'What can we do? Have we not done enough? What can we do more?' Then Project Safety Net happened and it all gelled in one week. From one group, there were instructions coming down and plans of action: 'Research shows that glorification, memorials, may create copycats so, schools, don't do it. ACS, you do this. PAMF, you do that' and so on. This was the most organized, best thing that could happen. How do you talk to the press? All of a sudden, all of us got instructions 'Let's develop a clear message.' That box of Project Safety Net is crucially important.
Becky Beacom: The HEARD Alliance (Health Care Alliance for Response to Adolescent Depression) with Lucile Packard, Stanford, PAMF, Santa Clara County Mental Health, ACS the whole mental health, physical health meeting that happened in June very concrete things came out of that. And Project Cornerstone yes, there's a momentum that should be celebrated, definitely.
Palo Alto Weekly: How could the community be more pro-active about these things ahead of time?
Roni Gillenson: At Menlo-Atherton High School at the beginning of every school year, they have Challenge Day. They break freshmen into small discussion groups and later come back for larger group discussions. It's an opportunity for kids to bond with their fellow freshmen and also to say, 'Let's talk about what's not talked about. Let's deal with what's going on.' The school stuff is left outside the room. What's dealt with is what's going on with you: 'Let's talk about your issues,' and there's no stigma because that's what you're there to talk about. ... It's an open forum for dealing with being an adolescent. Challenge Day is a national organization. They go all over the country and come in and do their thing for two days. Some teachers and parents participate. It's a completely different philosophy and culture of talking about mental health. Last year we got 80 to 90 referrals of critical cases that happened because of Challenge Day.
Becky Beacom: To devote resources to it, I can see that a school really would have to have good metrics and a belief that it works. You start off the school year and kids think, 'Yes, this does matter to my school.'
Philippe Rey: The parent involvement with Challenge Day is huge. Even some of the board members get involved.
Palo Alto Weekly: What is it about the M-A culture that's given rise to that approach? Is it the parents, the principal, the faculty? What makes M-A oriented in that direction?
Roni Gillenson: M-A brought someone in from San Francisco, where most of the schools actually have wellness centers dealing with health, mental health and overall wellness of students. She's now the coordinator of student support services at M-A. Several community organizations are involved, whether it's physical health, housing, jobs for kids, food bank or mental health, and ACS is part of that. So there's an emphasis on, 'This is part of school; this is what we do.' It's kind of like case management for kids who need it, so there's more of an emphasis on that.
Becky Beacom: It's really hard for us to say how the school districts are different. This is a very different community than some other communities, different than Mountain View, different than Menlo Park.
Barbara Spreng: In any large organization any large, complicated collection of human beings there's a culture that gets developed. Apple is different from HP. The culture is just different. It's hard sometimes to dissect that and figure out exactly why the culture is different. There is leadership, a sense of what the leaders want. We're all chasing our tails around this. Teachers could easily point fingers at parents and say, 'Parents are not involved enough,' or 'Parents are pushing too hard,' or 'We have to do this because that's what the parents want,' and to some extent they'd be absolutely right. But it's not everybody. We could turn around and say, 'It's because the teachers just aren't paying enough attention to this.' We'd be right in some cases, and in other cases not. So I think it's really hard to single out any one group or anything. A lot of people are really sensitive to this issue and sometimes just feel overwhelmed by the complexity of it and the interconnectedness. A lot of parents tell their kids to be happy, do as well as they can, it's not about the grades, not about how other kids are doing, that it's about their personal effort and finding a college that's a good fit. But then the kids come back convinced they're not going to get into a certain college, and it's like, 'Game over.'
Palo Alto Weekly: When it gets right down to it, there are certain levers we as a district could do by fiat that would automatically have an immediate impact on some of this. ... Limiting the number of AP classes a student could take is probably the most dramatic example. There would be a segment of the community who would scream like crazy, and another that would say, 'Hallelujah, it's about time.' How do we move toward common consensus on this type of cultural issue?
Becky Beacom: That dialogue has been going on for years with people right across the street at Stanford, and it actually has turned into action in other communities. Clearly I'm representing health care here, but what I've learned by being part of these efforts because this is a health issue is there's a fear. Our formula has been pretty good so far. We get kids into colleges, and we don't want to mess with that. But what's coming out of Stanford the Challenge Success program is that not only can you reduce stress, but you can increase engagement and learning. That's the point. A lot of people forget that. The point was not just about reducing stress but about falling back in love with school and creativity and passion. Other districts have made changes. Even if you took the recent tragedies off the table, this teacher could still write this same article based on lots and lots of kids who are turned off of school, who say, 'I'm not playing that game, I can't even start to play that game,' and their life takes a different trajectory.
Philippe Rey: There's a reason all of us come here to Silicon Valley we know it's competitive, the brains are here, the careers and so forth. Maybe it's something we all accept as a package. We come here; it's going to be competitive. What we're hearing now from the kids we heard 20 years ago. We need to develop systems where we can better identify the loner, the quiet one, the one who doesn't fit the mold in order to help them meet their dreams and aspirations. But we're not going to stop technology; we're not going to stop progress. It's going to get even more competitive.
Palo Alto Weekly: Isn't there a certain element that says, if there's something a student can do to be successful, if there's another thing they can do to move forward, they're going to do it? Isn't that what we're seeing? The mountain's getting higher; more and more Sherpas are needed?
Becky Beacom: If you build it, they will come. It is worrisome. We're trying to elevate the role of primary care (medicine) in this. The fact that people already have a medical home their pediatrician, family medicine doctor, internist that relationship is going to be relied upon in terms of (mental health) screening. It's going to be automatic to talk to (patients) about how they're feeling, doing some screening actual depression screening. The concept is, how can primary care be the ones that really start this conversation and actually begin treatment, if necessary. Some people are more comfortable doing that than taking that walk down to psychiatry or behavioral health.
Barbara Spreng: I think there needs to be a huge, community-wide commitment to taking a really hard look and having the courage to take some risks and make changes fundamental, holistic, systemic changes in the way we deliver education around here. This community as a whole, whether we're talking about the city or school district how much real creativity, innovation, risk-taking has either one of those institutions been willing to take in the last 15 or 20 years? Right across the street at Stanford, Denise Clark Pope has done groundbreaking research into the whole issue of student stress, and Palo Alto is one of the last and slowest to adopt any of that. It seems to me a tragedy that we're not embracing that more. Here's one really simple thing. The state of California has K-12 education standards in a bunch of different subject areas. They actually have K-12 standards in physical and social-emotional health. Who would know? Because they don't get tested. There are comprehensive standards, but they leave it up to the school district how to meet them.
Becky Beacom: There's a move afloat in Palo Alto and I think it's going to be really interesting to watch driven by the faith community, to amplify the voices of what they believe are the majority of parents who really support social-emotional approaches in schools. There may be a perception by the leadership that there's more support for the current system than for a lot of attention to social emotional well-being, so we need the community to really be clear about what it values. Some parents may assume that it's happening. Structure means something. Whether you start your year off with Challenge Day that's a structure that's created that allows things to be revealed. It says something. Hopefully some of the measures that have been taken in the past year will catch people earlier, whether it's in primary care, reaching out to parents, making ACS more familiar and accessible. So hopefully people won't hit that bottom and will get help earlier.
TALK ABOUT IT
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