Palo Alto Weekly
News - May 13, 2011
Couple presses for 'sense of urgency' in relieving academic stress
Personal tragedy created spark for 'We Can Do Better Palo Alto'
by Chris Kenrick
It seemed to come like a shot from nowhere.
Ken and Michele Dauber, Palo Alto parents of five, called for "new leadership" in the Palo Alto Unified School District in a guest opinion column published in late February in the Palo Alto Weekly.
Since then the couple — she a Stanford law professor and he a Google software engineer with a PhD in sociology — have become outspoken regulars at Board of Education meetings and elsewhere, pleading for emergency action to address academic stress in Palo Alto's two high schools.
"If I had hair, my hair would be on fire," Ken Dauber said, referring to a string of Palo Alto student suicides in the past few years.
Added Michele: "In the midst of a real crisis, sometimes you have to deviate from ordinary practices."
Impatient with established school-district protocols, the couple has argued aggressively — some would say abrasively — for a greater "sense of urgency" in revamping of district-wide homework and counseling policies.
They've launched an organization, "We Can Do Better Palo Alto," that claims an active membership of 20 and an email list of 130.
This week the couple, along with four other members of the group, appeared before the Gunn High School Site Council, calling for replacing Gunn's traditional counseling system with the "teacher advisory" system used at Palo Alto High School.
We Can Do Better will hold a public organizational meeting Tuesday, May 17, at 7 p.m. in Room A6 of Cubberley Community Center, 4000 Middlefield Road.
Although they don't usually bring it up, Ken and Michele Dauber make no secret of the fact that they too have lost a child to suicide — their oldest daughter, Amanda.
The 25-year-old graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design — who completed high school at Evanston Township High School in Illinois, where the family used to live — died by suicide in June 2008. At the time, she had just mounted her first solo show at a Providence, R.I., art gallery.
Amanda was on medication and under psychiatric treatment for major depression at the time of her death. Academic stress was not a factor, her parents said.
But they have been galvanized to action in Palo Alto by what they see as an incomplete response to the local tragedies — and district Superintendent Kevin Skelly's statements that academic stress does not play a role in suicides.
Skelly has called it dangerous to suggest "that there's a direct connection between the suicides and Gunn High School.
"I think it's a dangerous place to go, and unfair to the school, the district, the students and faculty who have worked very hard to create an environment there," he said in March.
The Daubers pointedly disagree.
"We know from the literature that academic stress can cause anxiety and depression, which in turn can cause suicidality," Michele Dauber said.
"We have to act with real urgency to make reforms now."
While supporting measures the district has taken so far, including screenings and suicide-prevention training, We Can Do Better advocates direct and focused attention on academic stress.
Group members praised the school board's decision this week to shift the 2012-13 academic calendar to schedule first-semester finals before winter break, giving high school students an assignment-free vacation.
But there are "many other, higher-impact changes that we feel are more important to the social-emotional functioning of our students and to reducing stress," such as attention to homework loads, block scheduling, later start times, advisory counseling and limits on test and "project stacking," Michele Dauber said.
School board members have said they will take up many of those issues, which are summarized in the "supportive school environment" section P-8 of a Project Safety Net report issued last summer, at their board retreat in August. The issues could become district "focus goals" next year.
Kathy Sharp, a Gunn parent and member of the advocacy group, said it's a "false choice" to think mitigating stress means sacrificing academic achievement.
"We believe students can feel connected, and we can have a school environment that reinforces that, without sacrificing academic performance," said Sharp, the mother of a senior and a sophomore at Gunn.
Outside of Gunn, We Can Do Better has attracted parents from Paly and the middle schools, but the Daubers say that, with kids in the schools, some are understandably cautious about speaking out.
The Daubers are not.
"It is terrifying, yet we must step up and lead," Michele Dauber said.
"I know if it has not happened to you it may be hard to believe that anyone can be afflicted with depression. But the statistics show that as many as a third of adolescents suffer from depression."
The Daubers are not currently Gunn parents but expect to be in the future. Two of their four other children — now in or graduated from college —went to Gunn; one went to a boarding school and the youngest is a fourth-grader at Barron Park Elementary School.
Since Amanda's death, the couple has worked with Rhode Island School of Design President John Maeda to address stress and establish mental health services at the school.
They also have come to know the parents of Palo Alto's teen suicide victims, who have created their own kind of support network.
"Our family has struggled to press on in the face of our devastating loss," Michele Dauber said.
"We are heartbroken every day and miss (Amanda) every day.
"I hope with all my heart that no family will have to suffer as we have and as these other families have."
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted by don't be so condescending,
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 14, 2011 at 12:01 pm
@PAUSD elementary school parent
Others have responded very accurately to your question since I have looked at this board but I will add all my points, too.
PAUSD high schools generally have a very good curriculum. PAUSD is known around the U.S. and by many universities. There has been a solid track record for many years, but the recent Tiger Mom phenomenom (read the Wall St. Journal article) has brought increased unnecessary stress and unpleasantness, affecting many students' educational experiences.
It "ought" to be enough that most students go through the curriculum here as it appears, making thoughtful choices, and have some serendipity (discover they love Bio, or Art or whatever.
Some parents, though, wish to constantly pressure their kids (who in general are no brighter or advanced EXCEPT they may become a year ahead in honor's math, etc. AS A RESULT of yrs of parent pushed paid prepping. They tend to require their kids to take as much of anything perceived as academic, it's a cram mentality.
A few things result. The prepped student has an easier time of it to earn a top grade (advantage). Some prepped students brag to some peers (some don't - they are secretive), and these students, naive or less wealthy or more balanced in life, are unsettled. Grades count for everyone. Everyone "cares."
The prepped student then "needs" more advanced curriculum (according to Tiger Mom) or "appears" brighter to the instructor. The whole standard is shifted ahead. Expectations rise. Such students may not be more intelligent or knowledgeable, but they have been crammed sufficiently and are motivated by Tiger Parents who pressure them to beat their peers. Don't forget to seek out the most advantageous summer education experience, too, preferably involving high level scientific research.
My point is, IF such parents truly felt PAUSD curriculum was weak (historically this is NOT the opinion for many years of college admissions, far pre-dating the Tiger Mom phenomenom), THEN these parents should SPEAK UP and contact curriculum people in PAUSD, the school board etc. But they DON'T. They don't care about the community or the school. They are often secretive in their selfish motivations and care about numbers: very top grades, top SAT scores, multiple top SAT subject test scores, multiple top AP scores, winning as many competitions as can be located, etc. Motivating your kids to do their best is correct; motivating them to "win" over others at any cost is a major source of unpleasantness in the atmosphere here. I was absolutely astonished when I witnessed the years of prepping for SAT done by some of my kids' peers - it was EXTREME and started early. (SAT prepping HAS been proven to be effective in raising scores)-we are talking EXTREME prepping here, though.
This skews the college apps process, since colleges look at an applicant in the context of his/her high school. Suddenly, a very high achieving and interesting kid looks just a little less than the kid who was prepped into the math competitions. I knew kids who put in 20+ apps to top universities; their acceptances likely took offers from kids who truly desired a particular university. A student can only attend one university, and sometimes the high level of apps is to beat others in terms of numbers of acceptances. What's more, the kids I witnessed often went strictly on reputation rather than knowledge of the college. Ivy League rules. The label is everything here. Never mind that some Ivies don't even rank at the top in some subject areas! Some high achieving kids in near Ivies are made to feel lesser. Really skewed experience.
The experience and circumstances in high level courses are sometimes skewed as some students have taken the curriculum in advance.
There are commercial schools (sometimes costly, time consuming) as well as private tutors and college admissions prep services that are very costly and elite and that include tutoring for these things, too. Some of them based in Cupertino used to be advertised in parenting publications, often with vulgar bragging about name of student, scores achieved, (supposed) Ivy League admissions offers.
I was surprised when I observed some parents have curriculum material saved and handed down to them which they then instill in their kids. My main problem is these kids aren't genuine.
As a result, sometimes teachers move ahead rapidly -- let's say in a demanding Chem course which is a large class -- and with all these students, all of whom are bright, there is an EDGE for those who have been prepped...the differences are minute but count bigtime in today's challenging university admissions process.
The student who is learning and doing his or her own work has less time to spend on ECs (extra-curricular activities -- these also need to be strong for college apps).
There are too many students applying to universities (I don't know when the population bump will end--perhaps soon), so universities are overcrowded recently. You may have heard in the news that private universities are very costly and public ones have budget strains, so winning merit aid and awards is also more helpful than in the past, in order to get a good college education.
Posted by Ken Dauber,
a resident of Barron Park
on May 15, 2011 at 7:34 am
Thanks to the various posters in this thread for taking these issues seriously and participating in the community discussion. I hope that We Can Do Better Palo Alto is causing all of us to think more about how to help make sure that our kids are thriving in our schools.
I want to make a few points that we've made elsewhere but that might get lost in all of these words.
First, the changes that we're seeking aren't radical departures from existing PAUSD policy. In fact, most of them are already district policy, but the district hasn't implemented them. The district leads, along with the city of Palo Alto, the Project Safety Net (PSN) community coalition in response to the suicides that resulted in the plan released in the summer of 2010. Section P-8 of that plan, entitled "Supportive School Environments," calls for the district to "study, discuss, and implement" a focused, broad-ranging study of how to improve practices in the schools around topics like homework, advisory, test and project scheduling, and others in order to reduce academic stress and improve student emotional and mental health. The plan also calls for determining what practices are working well and implementing them district-wide. (See Web Link). The school board recommitted PAUSD to the PSN plan in an Memorandum of Understanding that it approved at its January 11 meeting.
Unfortunately, it's been nearly a year since the PSN plan was released and the district has not moved forward to begin the work of addressing academic stress that P-8 requires. We have been urging the Superintendent and the school board to take even a small step -- for example, appointing a committee/task force drawn from staff, parents, teachers, and local experts -- but have been told that it's impossible to even get started until next school year at the earliest because of the district's planning cycle. I think that response is not consistent with the urgency of the situation that we face, nor with the fact that the district is already a year late in implementing its own plan. We are hopeful, based on public and private comments, that fully implementing P-8 will be a focused goal for PAUSD next year.
On the question of implementing an advisory model for counseling at Gunn, PAUSD has a focused goal for this year to "Examine effective practices both inside and outside the District for guidance and counseling for college and other post-secondary opportunities and adjust high school programs" and to "Improve student connectedness and strengthen support systems for student social, emotional, physical health" (see the district's staff presentation to the school board in April on this topic at Web Link). The presentation stresses the importance of using data to measure results and improve the delivery of programs and services. At the board meeting at which this focused goal was discussed, we presented data from various district surveys over several years of parents and students at Gunn and Paly. The data is remarkably consistent in demonstrating that parents and students at Gunn are approximately twice as dissatisfied with counseling services as at Paly. This difference is almost certainly due to the fact that Paly uses a teacher advisory model in its counseling approach, since the quality of the counseling staff is uniformly high across both schools. The reaction of members of the school board to this data was to affirm that all students have the right to the same quality of services, and to promise to thoroughly discuss whether to make the adoption of advisory at Gunn a focused goal for the next school year.
Second, the connection between responding to the suicides and improving the emotional and mental health of all of our students by reducing unnecessary academic stress is not our idea, it's the district's. Section P-8 of the Project Safety Net plan (the P stands for "Prevention") recounts a growing concern in the community over at least the last decade over what it calls the "degree of stress and distress within Palo Alto's teen population." That reflects the practical experience of educators and health professionals in our community, and a broad consensus in the academic literature.
Third, as Kathy Sharp said in the article that sparked this thread, we're convinced that the choice between academic excellence and reducing academic stress is a false one. Do you do your best work when you are sleep deprived, facing a pile of work that you can't get through, and worried about competing with your fellow workers? Neither do our kids. We need to undertake a focused examination of how to make improvements in our schools that increase both learning and student emotional and mental health. Our kids deserve schools in which they can thrive socially, emotionally, and academically.
If you want to be part of this effort, or are just curious about learning more, visit our website at Web Link, come to our meeting at Cubberly community center, Room A-6, on Tuesday May 17 from 7pm to 8pm, send us email at email@example.com, or give me a call at 650-906-4340.
Posted by Michele Dauber,
a resident of Barron Park
on May 15, 2011 at 10:02 am
@Some perspective please
I agree with parent that you seem quite angry. Nevertheless, I will respond to your concerns. First, we are not "bashing" Gunn. We hope to see the district improve Gunn and the other schools in the district, where stress has become a very serious health issue for all the district's kids. We have had two kids at Gunn recently (one is a freshman the other other a junior in college). Current Gunn parents are members of We Can Do Better. We are highly involved in the community in sports, the Y, scouting, church, and other activities. We are not "outsiders" to PAUSD or Gunn any more than any other parents. That is silly.
You may believe that PAUSD is already doing all it can to address teen mental health and suicide risk, and that Gunn has a noncompetitive climate where all children thrive. We can disagree and put forth our ideas. We differ on policy. That is what a democracy is.
But about some things there is not space for disagreement and that is about well-established scientific facts, such as the rates of adolescent depression.
I am writing to respond to the misinformation you are spreading in your post regarding rates of adolescent depression. Your link does not support your assertion, nor could it since your assertion is that only 3% of adolescents suffer from depression. It is very important that this be corrected. Both national and state and county (and PAUSD) data bear out the extent of adolescent depression rates at approximately 30%.
The National Adolescent Health Information Center in its 2008 National Profile of The Mental Health of Adolescents (Knopf, Park & Mulye 2009) (see pages 5-6)
states that 28.5% of high school students experienced a two week period of depression such that they "felt so sad or hopeless almost every day, two weeks in a row" that they could not function in their usual activities. The numbers are much higher for Hispanic youth -- nearly 50% of females answered yes to this question. Female rates in general are higher than male rates of depression but this may be due to response bias (i.e., females are more willing to admit to emotional problems).
The National Comorbidity study cited in this paper notes that only about half of youth with depression had ever told a professional about their depression (Kessler & Walters, The Epidemiology of DSM-III-R major depression and minor depression among adolescents and young adults in the National Comorbidity Survey. 1998.)
California State and local data are consistent with those at the national level. Lucille Packard Foundation has a wonderful website that provides a highly user-friendly and intuitive user interface for community access to the data (Way to Go Lucille Packard!).
According to data from the California Department of Education, California Healthy Kids survey in the link above, over 30% of 9th graders and 11th graders have experienced depression, using a similar definition of depression: "in the past 12 months, they had felt so sad and hopeless every day for two weeks or more that they stopped doing some usual activities." Again the rates were higher for females than males. In Santa Clara County, the results were the same, and in PAUSD it was around 25%. I urge everyone to visit this excellent site for an eye opening experience.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention estimates that more than a third of depressed individuals report suicidal ideation. Over 60% of those who die by suicide, like our daughter, suffer from major depression. Among those with alcohol or drug abuse issues, the figure is 75%.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, "Deaths from youth suicide are only part of the problem. More young people survive suicide attempts than actually die. A nationwide survey of youth in grades 9-12 in public and private schools in the United States (U.S.) found that 15% of students reported seriously considering suicide, 11% reported creating a plan, and 7% reporting trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey."
Similarly, in a survey of high school students, the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center found that 20% of teens had thought about suicide, about 17% of teens had made plans for suicide, and more than 8% of teens had attempted suicide in the last year."
Despite assertions to the contrary, the links between stress and depression and suicidality is well-known. (Kay R.Jamison, Night Falls Fast 2000). Other studies have also borne out this link. (See, e.g., Ang & Huan 2006). As far back as 1983, studies were finding clear links between academic stress and pressure and levels of depression in gifted high school students (see, e.g., Yadusky-Holahan & Holahan 1983). Work stress is associated with major depression (Wang & Scott 2001). Hillsman & Garber (1995) found that receiving a low grade on a report card increased depressive symptoms in fifth and sixth graders. Academic stress, school stress, stress caused by bullying or sudden disappointments -- it is all stress, and stress is linked to anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. This is particularly true in the developing brains of teens, who cannot necessarily see ahead to a future different than the present. That is what the "It Gets Better" campaign against gay youth suicide is doing -- it is trying to give these teens a concrete vision of a happier future. Schools are a locus of a loss of control for many teens -- another risk factor for depression, isolation, and suicidal ideation.
We understand how threatening and scary these numbers can be for parents of teens. There is an intense desire on the part of parents to look at those teens (including our child) who have died and find some difference, some sliver of daylight, some theory about "bad parenting" or mistakes that those families have made -- anything at all that will let them decide that it could not have happened to their child, that their child is safe and sound. Any suggestion that one's own child could in harm's way generates a lot of feelings and, often anger. But the facts are otherwise.
Denying science is not a useful exercise in depression any more than it is in climate change or evolution. It is a shame that misinformation like yours apparently can find a foothold in such an educated community in which people have access to high speed internet and good libraries where correct information is instantly available.
Posted by don't be so condescending,
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 16, 2011 at 9:51 am
A whole lot of factors are in play in current times. Whatever the university, one at least hopes the applicants are genuine ones who have earned their grades, written their own essays, and not had extreme prepping/advantages. You can't legislate SAT prepping, I know, but it has come to a point where there is a lot less authenticity in certain applicants managed by Tiger Moms.
This is being discussed a lot on the national level, not just in Palo Alto by any means. But Palo Alto moms have the $$$ to pursue such things and they often do. This naturally creates a certain amount of stress in students who do their own work, have not had a science project arranged for them by their parents, etc. To tell such honest students "oh, get lost" is nasty, as is the assumption one sometimes reads here that such students are lesser.
Local culture of overemphasis on status and rankings here.
I have read concerned discussions on the national level about reported # of applications from universities, leading to (supposed) acceptance rate/selectivity.
Some parents/kids are very competitive and put a whole lot of stock into these figures/rankings as if they were gospel; the whole point here is to get into the most selective university (never mind they have different ways of reporting these figures, how many they take off their waitlists, ED/EA, etc.)You can choose to ignore or take with a grain of salt, but it is discussed so frequently here!
Universities are very pressured to participate in US News & WR college rankings.
Of course, evaluating information from a wide variety of sources would be the best way to decide where to apply. It's difficult to believe any college would be operating if it didn't have something to offer of merit. But I have heard students deride a school that is ranked something like two points below another one (within the so-called top 15), even if that is statistically meaningless, the methodology of the "ranking" is somewhat questionable, doesn't consider the department/major the student is considering, the fit of the school, etc. Students comment here on such things with such certainty.
Yes, a famous university is known to invite apps from students who are very unlikely to be accepted, thereby greatly inflating the # of apps - perhaps by as much as 10,000? - and getting apps fees. A school like CalTech has self-selecting applicants. There are some schools that "advertise," strongly soliciting applicants. There are some that don't. This can make a difference in the # of apps, especially with status-obsessed types. I have heard that overseas, only certain schools are known (regardless of their merits) and many overlooked, and that is a factor now in admissions.
There are rather strange things about quiet practices in high stakes admissions that have emerged, such as Harvard's Z List (Harvard Crimson - someone relayed to me online)
- Increased competition with population bump lately of high school grads applying to university at the same time as a great increase in the number of apps they put out there. Then, with the extra apps, waitlists add to the confusion.
There are no guarantees with any college applications. There are many students and parents here interested in big name and/or Ivy colleges, and that may indeed suit many.
There is also competition out in the real world for these slots.
There is also, according to a lot of analysis of Ivy admissions policies, supreme challenges for top white and asian applicants when one takes into account slots set aside for legacies, athletes, hooks, URMs, ultra-major donors.
It is possible for a "near perfect" applicant without the special slot above to be turned away today, a great change from times past.
These things are all reality and are understood.
What we don't want is students/parents opting for the ends justify the means, but that seems to be the mentality now in certain places. I have not found it to be universal; but we need to promote honesty and honor.
Students are compared with peers in immediate school population -- rather than San Francisco Bay Area -- and the student not the parent is supposed to be the applicant. Yes, seems they do look at the state level, they want students from every state (no problem getting CA students).
When one realizes one has peers who game the system, gaining an edge -- parent-managed applicants benefitting from Tiger Mom tactics, one gets a bit disheartened. This does not make for an optimum high school experience. Universities can only make so many offers to a particular school. Some of the students have been "managed" in truly extreme and costly ways for years with an eye to high level admissions, that indeed amount to not being genuine or doing their own work, sorry, some of us find this unethical.
Posted by Paly Grad 09,
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 18, 2011 at 12:27 am
"Nowadays,a students with all As,and piano and sports can not easily go tio ivy.There are plenty of exemples this year."
"Go to gunn high school check this years records,if you can find someone with loads of Bs and without high achieving sports or talents who got into ivy,please inform us."
I think that you're missing something pretty essential here: fit. Large schools might not put as much effort into it, but as a college student who is heavily involved with meeting prospective students through tour guiding, hosting, etc, I can tell you that some students, while academically stellar, might not be right for my school.
I'm on friendly terms with most, if not all, of the admissions deans at my small and rather selective college, and am especially close to the dean who covers the NorCal area. They've told me about some of the kinds of discussions that occur in committee, where they not only consider the students' academic qualifications, but whether or not the student demonstrates the love of learning that's really essential, or what the student could both contribute and learn as a member of the school community. As one dean said, "I've never gone into committee and said, 'Wow, this person has a 2400 SAT score,' but I have said, 'Look at what this person has done to be a meaningful member of society and change what they thought needed changing.'"
Schools may prefer students without any grades lower than an A, but talented people get in with Bs all the time. (I don't think that excluding people with "talent" is necessarily fair, either. I would argue that everyone is talented, and whether a student's talent is academic, athletic, musical, or something else, that talent is what makes them special.) Schools aren't just looking for grades and test scores or even a basic checklist of talents or activities ("musical instrument: check. sports: check. volunteering: check.), but real people with real thoughts and something useful to contribute to the conversations going on at schools. Yes, they generally impose a minimum academic requirement, but how else are they supposed to sort through the thousands of applications they get each year?
I'm both astonished and disappointed by your obsession with Ivy League schools. There are really fantastic schools that are well-respected in academic circles for their academic rigor and open intellectual thought, if that's what you're looking for. Focusing on what kinds of students get into Ivies is entirely misdirected, in my opinion.
Do not understand-
"High school students (and their parents) do not take APs nor try to do well academically for no reason in a vacuum.
The problem is with the elite universities and work places (like Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Google, Facebook, Intel, Goldman Sachs,...) that demand academic success.
Until those institutions become more liberal and progressive in recruiting and allowing in lower achieving students, this problem of academic pressure and stress will prevail.
let's stop the emphasis on achievement and academic success. Let's boycott those institutions that tolerate, and even promote it!"
I really, really hope that you're speaking around a mouthful of tongue-in-cheek. If so, you're fantastic, since I laughed until I realized that you might actually be serious. If not, I'm more than willing to engage with you on the importance of standards.
(CliffNotes version: Standards- they are important to maintaining a functional, non-stagnant society. Throwing away standards- bad and unproductive for reasons that should be universally obvious.)
"Even worse, AP teachers go out of their way to make it virtually impossible for kids who are not prepped to get an A or even a B. The kids who didn't arrive pre-prepped are pretty much second class citizens in AP."
I want to throw in my voice here as a student who was never prepped for any of my AP classes- though I suppose I'm a Palo Alto failure since I only took 4 in all my time at Paly. (Oh, wait, my dad helped me with my addition/multiplication/some basic math facts when I was 7. He stopped by the time I was in 4th or 5th grade, but maybe it was all that 'prep' that set me up to be a solid student in high school. Hmm, things to think about.) I never, never felt like a second-class citizen. My teachers always made sure to engage everyone who was willing to be engaged, and when I fell behind, I knew that I could talk to them and figure out how to attempt to catch up.
I am consistently appalled by the tenor of the discussion here regarding the teachers; I think that too many parents view them as 'the enemy' or some evil oppressor out to get your kids. They aren't. Teachers get into this business to help students, spread knowledge and engage with the youth. (Also, one suspects, given the optimism and enthusiasm with which they enter this field, to skip in meadows and frolic in the sunshine and pick flowers or something. What a sad disappointment it must be for them to discover that instead they're vilified by the people who ought to be most appreciative.)
Also, I feel like I'm going to throw in my hat here with "Teacher": If your student isn't doing well in class and no amount of work is going to make it better, why not either drop the class or take the grade he/she deserves? I did quite poorly in some of my AP level classes, but I accepted that it was a result of my failure to adequately complete homework assignments, do readings, etc.