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Student journalists explore happiness at Gunn
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on Dec 23, 2011
How does Gunn High School rate on the student happiness scale? If you ask seniors Amrita Moitra and Jean Wang, they'd give it a B minus. Moitra and Wang aren't guessing wildly; they surveyed their fellow Titans, 436 of whom -- or 23 percent -- responded.
Read the full story here Web Link
posted Thursday, December 22, 2011, 5:42 PM
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Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park School
on Dec 27, 2011 at 10:14 pm
Thanks for your comments and citations to data -- it makes it easier to understand the areas of disagreement. I think that your main point is that academic stress isn't actually a problem in Palo Alto's high schools, and that efforts would be better directed at more narrowly focused mental health initiatives, a perspective that you say is shared by Project Safety Net. Unfortunately you're misreading the data that you're citing, and Project Safety Net is actually recommending changes in the schools themselves along with mental health interventions.
It's probably worth quoting at some length from section P-8 of the Project Safety Net plan, because it helps to set the context (see Web Link):
"In recent years, there has been growing concern over the degree of stress and distress within Palo Alto's teen population. In 2001, PAUSD created a community-based committee, SHARE (Student Health Awareness through Resources and Education), to investigate and respond to ever-increasing numbers of students with diagnoses of depression and anxiety. At around the same time, Stanford's Vaden Health Center and experts within Stanford's School of Education were investigating this same phenomenon. In 2004, a program was created to provide educational science and professional support to local high schools seeking to reduce stress and academic pressure and improve learning among their students. It was first called "SOS" for Stressed Out Students and is now known as Challenge Success. Palo Alto and Gunn High Schools have had some participation with this program over the last few years.
These efforts support the belief that all elements of the educational system, including core principles, curriculum, policies, training, strategic plans, hiring and other practices must align in the development of a supportive school environment. At the core of this strategy is an expanded definition of success within the schools and community that embodies an appreciation of a variety of aptitudes and avenues that define "success" for youth and a structure that supports this message."
As to the importance of stress to Project Safety Net, in March 2011 33 PSN community partners answered a survey about which of the 22 PSN strategies are most important. P-8 tied for 2nd in that survey, after only P-2 ("Mental Health Support for Students"). 17 of the strategies received fewer votes from PSN partners. Clearly providing mental health supports is a critical intervention, but the central insight of P-8 is that it is counterproductive to attempt to ameliorate the effects of what P-8 calls "stress and distress" without addressing their sources, which are at least partially in the schools.
In terms of the various surveys, since you don't cite specific measures or language it's hard to understand exactly what you're saying. However, in the most recent survey (in 2010, see Web Link), 73% of high school parents said that their students were somewhat or extremely stressed by homework, 68% by the difficulty of lessons, 71% by class reports or projects, and 79% by tests. By contrast, only 28% reported similar levels of stress stemming from activities outside of school.
Looking at the 2008 Strategic Plan surveys (Web Link), 48% of Gunn students reported being extremely stressed by tests, with an additional 40% reporting that they were somewhat stressed. 82% reported being somewhat or extremely stressed by the daily homework workload.
It's true that in answer to the question, "What is the source of your child's anxiety/stress?," more parents say "Pressure child put on his/herself" than "Pressure from teachers." But to conclude from this that the ultimate source of this stress stems from the student rather than the school ignores the data in the survey that you neglected to cite about homework, tests, and projects and reports. I think the most accurate way to read the data is that parents see their students striving mightily to satisfy expectations and workload generated at school.
It's particularly odd to point to the 2008 Paly WASC as evidence for your thesis, since that WASC is replete with comments from both the self-study and the visiting accreditation committee pointing to the need to reduce academic stress at Paly (see Web Link, particularly pp. 70-73). Goal 3 for that WASC, for example, is to "reduce student stress through balance of academic, extracurricular, and leisure activities for better overall health habits and academic performance," and the visiting committee's Recommendation #2 was to "expand both systemic and individual opportunities to reduce student stress and encourage social and emotional growth." The 2008 WASC looked back to the 2003 WASC, which was also concerned with reducing academic stress, and noted that "the school has focused on curricular and instructional issues that may be contributors to stress."
I have to admit to being puzzled by the argument, offered by you and others, that students should experience stress in high school so that they can learn how to deal with situations that they'll encounter later in life, like bureaucracy and bad bosses. Why just stress? How do we pick which negative experiences we should subject kids to, so that they'll have whatever the supposed benefits of pre-experience (not that anyone ever actually offers any evidence for positive effects for this, by the way)? What about alcoholism, failed marriages, dead-end jobs, domestic violence, evictions, lack of health insurance, racism, and all of the other ways in which "life is not perfect"? This really just seems like a rear-guard defense of a situation that, contrary to "Consider this's" assertion, has long been seen as a problem in Palo Alto, and is now properly the subject of PAUSD focused goals aimed at reducing unnecessary academic stress.
I like Katya Villalobos and know that she cares about kids, but this was a missed opportunity to tell our students that we hear them and are working to try to reduce the stress that they are complaining about.
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Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park School
on Dec 28, 2011 at 2:41 pm
I can see that you're unhappy with the idea that the schools are a source of unnecessary stress for our kids, and that they would benefit socially, emotionally, and academically from reducing that stress. However, trying to turn that broadly shared concern into a marginal view that is held only by We Can Do Better Palo Alto is just inconsistent with the facts. I've already responded about Project Safety Net in my post above. I've also spoken with all of the leaders of Project Safety Net, and I've heard nothing but appreciation for our efforts to advocate for implementation of section P-8 of the PSN plan. I challenge you to find a community organization in Palo Alto that deals with kids that doesn't share this perspective. Certainly the schools disagree with you: PAUSD has a focused goal to reduce unnecessary academic stress and is one of the authors of the Project Safety Net plan, including P-8, and the high schools have published self-studies promising to reduce unnecessary stress, as cited above. And contrary to your assertion, SHARE was specifically focused on reducing student stress. It's worth quoting from one of SHARE's central members, Becky Beacom of PAMF:
"SHARE was a school and community-based committee established in the early 2000's by PAUSD's Carol Zepecki. It was created due to a rising concern within the District that increasing numbers of students were showing up on the District's Special Ed rolls with a diagnosis of depression and/or anxiety. The District invited a number of health and community organization leaders to meet, investigate and respond. Over the years the committee invited and included representatives of PAMF, Parents Place, LPCH, ACS, City of Palo Alto Family Resources, Presidents of the PTA Council, PTA presidents, Parent Ed chairs from school sites and PTA Council, parent volunteers, counselors from middle and high schools, Director of PreSchool Family and Assistant principals.
SHARE came about at around the same time as Stanford's SOS (now Challenge Success) program - and much of the thinking and compelling strategies put forward by SOS/Challenge Success was also embraced by SHARE. SHARE's mission statement: 'The mission of SHARE is to foster a collaboration of home, school and community to ensure for our youth a sense of wholeness and well-being, and a clear understanding of the many avenues towards happiness and success.
SHARE believes that there is a connection between the pressure to achieve a narrow definition of success and the growing risk to the health and well-being of our youth.'
In particular, SHARE embraced the ideas and strategies of influencing the environments within which children live (their homes through parent education; their schools by supporting and encouraging environmental changes like block schedules, later starts, organized test and project calendars, alternatives to finals and/or finals before winter break, etc.; and the greater community mainly through the partnerships of SHARE. This is a very general but limited statement, as SHARE convened many important meetings, sponsored outstanding parent ed events with national experts, worked directly with some of PA schools and students on these issues and more)." (see Web Link, search for "Becky Beacom").
See also the roundtable on stress reduction in Palo Alto high schools in 2010 published in the Palo Alto Weekly (Web Link), in which Becky says:
"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. SHARE (Student Health Awareness through Resources and Education) has been working on this for many, many years."
Becky raises the key question that our kids are asking: "Who's listening?". I hope the answer isn't the one that she heard at the Youth Forum, "Nobody's listening." It's certainly possible, if for some reason you want to, to discount all of the concern expressed by many adults, and all of the evidence in multiple surveys over the course of years, by selective misreading of questions (I particularly like your sleight of hand turning a question about pressure from teachers into evidence absolving schools as a source of stress), or misstatements of what organizations are saying, but what's the point? Most Gunn students say that stress is one of the worst aspects of their school. Why don't we listen to them, acknowledge the validity of what they're saying, and work on fixing it?
If you're serious about having a dialogue about this, give me a call at 650-906-4340, and let's have coffee and talk it over. At the very least, I encourage you to give up your anonymity -- I don't agree with all of your views, but I think that accountability would help to raise the quality of this conversation.