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Is It Possible to Be a Student at Gunn or Paly and Not Be Stressed?

Original post made by Worried on Oct 16, 2010

After reading so many posts about the stress levels at Gunn and Paly, I'm wondering whether it's even possible to be a student there and not be really stressed, especially if you have high academic ambitions. I have a very bright, self-motivated middle schooler who loves school and learning and has a great "work ethic." I'm worried, though, that all this could be ruined in high school. Is it possible to be a happy, relatively unstressed but extremely high-achieving Gunn or Paly student?

Comments (66)

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 16, 2010 at 10:53 am


Happy - yes
High Achieving and unstressed - absolutely not unless something changes (and moving finals before Winter Break won't do it)

In another thread, a student from Gunn put is well, the daily homework from teachers (and often, their attitude and lack of instruction in class) is a major cause of stress.

Posted by Please, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 16, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Do you remember being a teenager? It isn't all peaches and cream. It is a hard age.

Isn't it more stressful to be poor? Do we think the stress is less in Asian countries whose kids want the jobs of the future.

This idea that somehow life is better for kids somewhere else is just not true. This is a wonderful community in which to be a kid. The schools here are just outstanding.

Posted by Perhaps, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 16, 2010 at 1:08 pm

Depends on the child, of course, and how fast he/she works. From what I hear, if your child isn't shooting for A's, the stress level is not bad. Take all regular lanes and no APs. To your question, can one be "high achieving and not be stressed"? Most likely, there will be academic stress for high achievers. Maybe not constantly, but it would be naive to think that they won't ever be stressed. Expect homework on weekends too.

My child is a freshman and thinks the new block schedule is a big help for lessening stress. Students can also work ahead and finish homework the day before it's due. Finals before Winter Break, which might be a reality next year will also help.

PAUSD calendar also gives at least one extra day off for most months, which are cherished. I would prefer ending a week later and more days off during the academic year.

And why are you living in another community? There is a whole separate thread regarding that issue.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2010 at 1:58 pm

The teenage years are stressful years regardless of where you live and what school you go to.

My own teens were stressful, parents, school, friends, career plans, money, after school jobs, vacations, learning to drive, zits, after school activities, you name it.

Teens learn to become adults through dealing with the stresses of everyday teen life. Trying to take away all the stress isn't doing them any favors, but monitoring the stress, understanding their problems and giving the necessary support and guidance will help them through it. Also, making sure that they have non-stressful activities where they can just hangout with friends and not be judged by how good they are doing at school, or in sport, etc. are a vital stress reducer.

Saying all that, Gunn and Paly are stressful, but no more so than many other schools in other places and other countries. Getting rid of busy homework, ridiculous community service requirements and some of the competition to get into sports and student leadership may do a great deal for many students who are feeling like failures because they don't make it as class president or onto the football team.
Some of these things cause just as much stress for some students than the number of AP classes and helicopter parents do for others.

Posted by Perhaps, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 16, 2010 at 2:39 pm

@Resident: The only community service requirement is 15 hours for Living Skills class, which is easy to complete.

P.E. can be waived during the time students are on a Paly sports team so they can study during that free time to make up for the obligation after school.

For Paly, on Tuesdays school ends one hour early, Thursdays, they have Tutorial, which is 65 minutes of study time, and school ends 30 minutes earlier. If students use these times wisely, it will help reduce stress.

Any time a student wants to be top tier in a top school, there will be stress. Is it worthwhile to live elsewhere for easier academics? Would you enjoy the people and community? Experience and environment play factors in students' life learning also.

Students should not overextend themselves with extracurriculars. Facebook, texting, computers, are all distractions which are valuable getaways but interference if overdone.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2010 at 4:44 pm


I agree about the 15 hours for living skills, it is the ridiculous levels that some think are necessary for the presidents award or for college apps that I was talking about. It is good for teens to have some experience of helping others without it having to be a huge requirement "that will look good".

I said nothing about PE and sports. If you are able to get on a sports team that is a stress reliever in itself. What I am talking about is the ridiculous amount of stress needed to get picked for the team. For those who make it they feel great about themselves. For someone who has had a goal to get on the high school football team since they were in elementary school and don't make it, that causes a great deal of stress. What about someone who is almost good enough, but not quite? When our schools keep growing, there is still only the same number of places on the football team. Big stresses there.

These sessions can be used for homework, study or other stress relieving. I have no problem with that.

I never said that we should aim to eliminate stress, only teach how to relieve the stress. Teens need some stresses, I agree. Top tier high schools have stresses, making the students color posters, cook for language classes, or pull weeds, are not the types of stresses we should have. Research papers, essays and preparing for tests make much more doable assignments.

I agree that students shouldn't stress themselves with too many extracurriculars, particularly if they are competitive and stress related. But having some downtime away from school, homework and pressures on a regular basis makes life more enjoyable and bearable.
Texting, computers, video games are not extra curriculars, they can help to reduce stress and definitely shouldn't be overdone, but face to face contact with real people would be much better.

Bringing up our kids into well rounded adults is a worthy goal. Academic education is a large part of it, but not the whole. Teaching a balanced life is also a worthy goal.

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2010 at 5:25 pm


"supportive (and non-typical PA) parents"

to be happy, relatively unstressed......


so tiring to hear blame on the parents for the stress

I've posted on the other thread about the fact that our High Schools are on steroids with insane work overloads that have no oversight, for fear of stepping on teacher's toes.

it is a reality that there are enough fiefdoms in schools that have developed under the guise of "achievement" or "standards" that have no respect for kids, and will throw out assignment after assignment and slave drive the kids

only Elementary school parents ask for more homework because there is none in Elementary school, so don't blame parents for asking for more work in High School

it's so easy to blame parents, just another strike against the students, blame their stress on their parents

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 16, 2010 at 5:34 pm

The Elephant in the Room (at Paly at least) is unnecessary homework. As mentioned above, cooking for a language class, making a cartoon for science, pulling weeds as part of community service - are student learning from these? I think the pediatric guidelines for homework are 10 minutes per grade, so our 9th grade students should have an average of 90 minutes, not 4-6 hours.

To add insult to the homework load is the fact that many teachers assign work which they take weeks (or in case of some English teachers, months) to grade and return. Junior year, my son's English teacher never return 3 or 4 essays and he has no idea what grade he got on them.)

Elementary student's parents are not the only ones who ask for more homework, middle school parents do also.

Posted by Worried, a resident of another community
on Oct 16, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Thanks, everyone. It sounds like it may be possible, though difficult, and perhaps more so at Paly because of the block scheduling. (For the person who asked, I'm living in another community because we haven't moved to Palo Alto yet. We're former residents who lived there for many years and who are contemplating moving back.)

Posted by paresident, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 16, 2010 at 7:44 pm

i remember when i was in the last year of my elementary school we have to take test(simliar like sat)just to get in the schools like gunn in my country and we need to take this sat again in order to get in the same school(high school part)or we would be lucky the kids are in us.they just have to live in the good school district.

Posted by Puzzled, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2010 at 8:12 pm

How difficult are those AP courses anyway? They sound like they are harder than university and graduate school courses! That can't be. Aren't they suppose to be the equivalent of the "101" courses that college freshmen take? If they are more difficult than that, then these courses should allow a student to get a bachelors degree in 3 years. Like the A-level system does for students in the U.K.

Posted by paresident, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 16, 2010 at 8:25 pm

they are very hard. if we compare gunn to stanford, it would probably be harder for students in high school, my point is they are young and needs to be working hard just like the rest of students in the world do.

Posted by Frank, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 16, 2010 at 9:03 pm

is it possible to be HUMAN and not stressed? Stress is a basic biological reaction, sorry.

Posted by Perhaps, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 16, 2010 at 9:15 pm

@Resident: Only the first sentence was aimed at you. If a student chooses to earn massive community service hours, that's their decision. Don't let their fear rub off on you. Sometime soon, they are eliminating community service transcript recognition because students are volunteering for the "wrong reasons" (ie: just for recognition). I think the 15 hour requirement is valuable because it encourages students to begin volunteering. My child began volunteering for the requirement but has continued to volunteer because it has been enjoyable to help others in need.

I know of a Stanford student, Paly alum, who finds Stanford so easy that he is double-majoring now.

Parents often say with pride, "Once they graduate from PAUSD, college is easy!" It doesn't seem right to push teenagers to adult workloads, but that's what PAUSD is doing.

Colleges do know the PAUSD reputation and consider it when viewing applications.

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2010 at 11:27 pm


you are on to something, it would be nice if the district would look at it this way

Posted by Puzzled, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 16, 2010 at 11:30 pm

Maybe PAUSD should be handing out Bachelor degrees instead of diplomas. Does anyone else think this is out of whack? Do all colleges really know about PAUSD? So who has a better chance of getting into Harvard: a straight-A, stress-free student from Missouri or a stressed-out, burnt-out, B student from Palo Alto?

Posted by Worried, a resident of another community
on Oct 17, 2010 at 9:11 am

All other things being equal, the straight-A, stress-free student from Missouri would have a better chance of getting into Harvard. (Frank: I realize that stress is a natural part of life, but my question was trying to get at the reportedly unusual levels of stress for high school students.) I have done a great deal of research, and I worry because at Gunn and Paly, too much stress is a prevalent and recurring theme. That isn't always the case at highly ranked schools, both public and private. Could it be, though, that Gunn and Paly students (and parents) simply discuss their stress more, and that the stress levels at these two schools are actually comparable to what students at other highly ranked schools experience (but perhaps don't discuss as much)?

Posted by pamom, a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 17, 2010 at 10:19 am

Some really good points brought up here. If you are contemplating moving back for the high schools, I wouldn't encourage that. Instead, look for good private high schools.

Teenagers do have stress and stress is normal. What we are concerned about is way too much stress: too much homework and trying to do too many things to please the admissions process. So some say just chill out and be a B student and skip the AP's and so on. Well, then that student won't make it into our UC's and may miss out on the career that would suit her/him best.

Can't speak for all the AP's but some of them are very tough. AP English is more than I ever had to do in my freshman college English class. But my high school classes better prepared me for them. That's another wrinkle adding to stress--when students aren't prepared for the next harder class coming up (especially the middle schools don't prepare students well here).

What should be done is tone down the homework.

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 17, 2010 at 11:58 am

How difficult are AP courses - isn't the point. AP courses aren't a good or bad thing as such. What we want is a healthy academic and social atmosphere.
It's the ratcheting up of the NUMBER of AP courses a student (parents) feels must be taken in order to be competitive from here. It's gone from being something a student takes because s/he is interested in the subject to something a student loads in for extra brownie points. Then the student half-complains, half-brags online about being up to 1AM each night.
So the "math kid" feels obligated to take APUSH even though s/he can't stand the subject and won't ever take it in college (and the "regular" course is fine). What's more, the kid sometimes has access to specialized tutoring. This raises the stress level for kids who take an AP because they LIKE it. There are students there who don't care for the subject, are taking it merely for college apps, and who may even act dismissive since they are in a better competitive position owing to their tutoring.

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 17, 2010 at 12:22 pm

the number of APs should not matter, to regulate the amount of work load for AP or any other class.

home work simply means that same work is not being done in class

nice to have an expectation that these kids will self-home-school, but then an AP class should not be a class

that being said, in an environment where there is no regulation of work loads, and you're at the mercy of individual teachers' or department whims, why would you want to subject yourself to the cumulative assault

Posted by truth, a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Oct 17, 2010 at 12:23 pm

I am sure that you, as a parent, are not happy about being part of the problem why our teenage youths are so stressed. Sadly, it is the truth. In my practice, I visit with dozens of teenage high school students. Some common oft-repeated remarks by these students? "my parents stress me out" "i wish my parents would lay off - i'm doing the best i can" "they never listen to me"

again, sad but true -- the parents hold a lot of the blame and responsibility.

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, 18 hours ago


so tiring to hear blame on the parents for the stress

Posted by Worried, a resident of another community
on Oct 17, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Thanks for the tip, pamom. The problem is, most good private high schools have a "liberal arts" focus and don't offer nearly the array of specialized courses and extracurricular activities that Gunn and Paly do. There are a couple of exceptions, but at a cost of $33,000 or more per year, they're out of most people's reach--and sometimes the atmosphere can be just as stressful and competitive at these schools too. Some teachers there may be more reasonable in their homework demands, and private schools tend to have more free periods available in which to study, but the students themselves (and their parents) can generate a very unhealthy, competitive, and stressful atmosphere. Why pay $130K-160K over four years for that?

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 17, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Someone posted an idea on the College Confidential website that high schools have it in their best interest that students take as many AP courses as possible, owing to national rankings of high schools which are based on AP courses taken. (I don't happen to think this is a good measure to base school rankings on, but it exists.)
I thought I recall that one of the criticisms of these rankings is it is merely the number of AP courses taken, NOT the number of AP tests taken or the scores (4 or 5)that should "count."
I THINK that at PALY or Gunn students are required (or usually required) to take the AP test after taking an AP course, so this ups the stress level for our students. At the same time, they are not taking an AP class without taking the actual test, a scheme some don't approve of, but which some American students do get away with...not sure what is better...I don't know what level of encouragement or discouragement is occurring now at PAUSD HS, I believe policies and practices surely change over the years.

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 17, 2010 at 12:39 pm

I can assure "Worried" that private HSs are well worth looking into - I encourage you!

Posted by Worried, a resident of another community
on Oct 17, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Thanks--I've looked into them extensively, but Gunn and Paly still seem to come out better, all things considered. That wouldn't be the case if I were looking for a more "liberal arts" high school or if I had a daughter (which would make Castilleja an option).

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of another community
on Oct 17, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Have you looked at private schools in other states yet? Because in Oregon there's a really good sounding school called "Catlin Gabel" which isn't entirely emphasized on liberal arts.

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 17, 2010 at 1:39 pm


it sounded like you were either a teacher or a counselor,

blaming parents in this community is common, and some parents go with it

I happen to disagree and think it distracts from some real problems in our schools related to homework overload especially in High School

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 17, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Well, it's not just Castilleja (which I admire from afar - no personal contacts there, though) -- I am closely familiar with several out of state boarding high schools (East and Midwest) that offer excellent education, with long, excellent track records. I'm sure there are more out there, of course. Some cities are fortunate to have interesting and high quality public magnet-type public high schools (not remedial in nature - that's a different category).

Posted by wow, a resident of Triple El
on Oct 17, 2010 at 2:36 pm

you guys are ridiculous...parents ARE the problem...period!

There is not a day that goes by that I do not here a comment relating to how or why a parent has stressed out that child.

anonymous proves the point...send them to a boarding school (parents no where in sight) and your child will get a fabulous education. Weird that when you remove the parent entirely we see positive results. Maybe just a coincidence...maybe not...

I could sit here and write a million other truths but I have tests to grade...and god forbid I take too long to return them back to my students.

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 17, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Wow - Parents are often part of the problem and boarding schools can be a wonderful $$$$$$ option. And regarding waiting too long to return tests, a week or so is perfectly reasonable. My complaint has been with English teachers who take 4-8 weeks to return essays and assign several new essays in the interim. It's hard to improve your writing with no feedback.

Posted by Worried, a resident of another community
on Oct 17, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Anonymous: Yes, I have looked at private (and public) schools in other states, including Catlin Gabel in Oregon. I loved the sound of it--in most respects, it seemed perfect--but no one in my family wants to move to the Portland area (only 140 mostly sunny days per year). We've experienced the Pacific Northwest in depth, so that's not an unfounded reservation. The closest thing I've found to Catlin Gabel in California (at least from reading websites, etc.), in terms of sci-tech offerings, extracurriculars and "feel," is Menlo. Francis Parker in San Diego seems similar too, but it's pretty far from Silicon Valley.

Posted by laura, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 17, 2010 at 6:05 pm

My daughter got four hours of homework a night in AP Bio and was taking three other AP's also and doing swimming. She didn't get home till 6:30 pm from that and would then hit the books. She would often be up till 4 am. Palo Alto schools are rigorous but she breezed through UCLA. Was it worth it? For many parents the answer is yes - that's why they choose to live here. I was lucky - my daughter handled stress pretty well since all of her friends were doing the same thing. They really supported each other. Many times I heard her refer to it as "bootcamp."

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of another community
on Oct 17, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Worried, there's also a good school called "Lakeside" in Seattle which has more sunny days than Portland. I heard that Bill Gates went there, though I haven't looked at it very closely. From what I've seen though, it doesn't seem to have as much computer science as Catlin Gabel. Catlin Gabel is still my top choice for private schools--I think I'm going to send my kids there.

Posted by pamom, a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 17, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Worried, even though I suggested you look at privates, I can see your point about they may not be better. I did want to say that my son did really get a lot of good out of Gunn. The robotics team was just super and the lead teacher wonderful. There are some great kids here and he has wonderful friends. There are so many programs that students have a lot of opportunities which is very good.

The homework needs to be scaled back. Wish you the best in making up your mind.

Posted by Worried, a resident of another community
on Oct 17, 2010 at 7:20 pm

Anonymous: Thanks again. I'm very familiar with Lakeside; although Bill Gates and Paul Allen went there a long time ago, the school has a strong liberal arts focus and very little computer science/technology (unlike Catlin Gabel, which has four years of computer science and a strong robotics team--plus access to all sorts of scientific internships in the Portland area for students attending Oregon high schools). In spirit, though, it's very similar to Catlin Gabel--they're sort of "sister schools." One caveat: If you haven't experienced Pacific Northwest weather for a prolonged period of time (at least a year, and preferable more), be careful. You can find many posts from people who've relocated from California to Oregon or Washington and then moved back because of the endless gray--check out the Berkeley Parents Network,, Sperling's Best Places, etc.

pamom: Thanks for the additional info about Gunn, especially its robotics team and teacher. I agree, those are two very strong points about the school; Paly also seems to have a good robotics team, though I don't know much about it. It's great to hear that your son ended up getting many good experiences out of Gunn and came away with strong friendships--ultimately, I think both can go a long way toward mitigating other stresses. The homework load, though, is still a concern.

Posted by Another Anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 17, 2010 at 8:56 pm

Anonymous and Worried -
I assume your child has some input in his/her future? They of course want to be sent off away from family and friends..... no stress???

Posted by Behappy, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Oct 17, 2010 at 9:38 pm

Interesting discussion here. My husband and I are both highly educated and wanted the best for our children (still in their elementary and preschool years). When we moved to the valley 10 years ago and couldn't afford to live in PA, we chose to buy a house in the South Bay and send them to private school.

We checked a lot of private schools in the area (Nueva, Keys, Harker, Woodland, and so on) and chose one that we thought was perfectly aligned with our values (whole child approach, excellent music/drama/art/athletics programs in addition to the academics, etc).

Fast forward 3 years and we decided to move to PA in the Gunn district and send them all to public schools. We couldn't be happier. Our kids love their school and we've been quite impressed as well with the quality of the education they are/will be getting in the district.

There's something to be said about sending your kids to the community school where they can form long lasting friendships away from
some of the at times brutal and mean social environment at the private schools (which can be filled with very wealthy families with spoiled kids that don't care much about

True, high school is stressful, but so is life. It's up
to the parents to teach the kids to control and manage their time and stress in school and to not let them fall in the "must go to an Ivy or else" trap. You will be very well served at Gunn or Paly (more so than the private schools in the area).

Good luck with your decision.

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 17, 2010 at 9:50 pm

There are too many anonymous-es posting here right now, leading to a little confusion. I am the initial anonymous poster, who remarked it may be worthwhile to consider boarding high schools. At first glance it may seem farfetched. Without getting too specific, in our experience one may obtain specific high quality curriculum/experiences at such a school and there may be reasons why a student would like to "expand" his/her world and this offers that opportunity. Still, with modern technology, it is possible for parents to stay connected with their independent teens, even if they live far away.
I was a parent at one school and a relative of faculty (now deceased) at another. Both schools are well-known internationally and located thousands of miles away. Naturally, I have visited both places repeatedly but did not move there.
I attended public school myself, and am glad we had the opportunity to be associated with the boarding HS experience, which is special.

Posted by puzzled, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 17, 2010 at 10:06 pm

4 am??!! Sorry, but that sounds like a health-risk for anyone, especially a teen still in their body-growing years. Also, I think it is a waste of time and money for any student to "breeze" through university. I bet the universities love this though - get a bunch of know-it-all students so the profs don't have to actually teach a thing, and have more time to publish. So what are we paying the big university bucks for - their golden stamp of approval? Sounds like the tuition paying students and families are getting ripped off. After 4 years of breezing around in college, are these students going to be able to re-ignite their high school work ethic for demanding employers?

Posted by Successful student, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 17, 2010 at 10:35 pm

When I went to Paly, it took me a couple years to learn to separate myself from the mentality that straight A's are the only grades accepted. Sure, I didn't rank in the top 10, 20, or even 30% of my graduating class grade-wise, but now I'm at a great college getting good grades, and most importantly, I've been successful. Stress is only as detrimental as students make it out to be. If they can learn to ignore it, and (all the parents will get mad at me for this one) tune out the teachers, peers, and adults breathing down their necks, they will go on to succeed, whether it is in high school or in higher education.

Posted by Stay-at-home mom, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 17, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Boarding school?! Every person I know who attended boarding school was not happy with it and was sent because the parents no longer wanted to raise them. Why would parents send their kids away four years early unless they do not get along with their children or the parents selfishly want time to themselves? I cherish my days with my children living at home. I also think it is valuable for children to grow up with others who live nearby instead of others who come from other states.

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 17, 2010 at 11:17 pm

If you are unfamiliar with boarding schools, I recommend searching that section of the College Confidential website (great resource for high school parents and teens). Mine are in college, and a lot of info/advice found on this massive website/forum turned out to be accurate.

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2010 at 12:06 am


unfortunately not enough people are puzzled about PA kids breezing through college or staying up until 4 am, and wearing the badge of honor of having gone through "boot camp" in HS

the choices offered here are 1) enjoying and savoring the stress from work overload, 2) sending kids to boarding school 3) looking at straight A's as a bad thing (apparently there's a book titled "the blessings of a B Minus")

somehow, with the level of complacency there is about work overload, why should anything better be expected

Posted by Anon, a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 18, 2010 at 1:05 am


To answer your basic question: Sure, it can be done. And not that rare.

Palo Alto parents (over)-focus on stress. It is true that some kids don't work well under stress. Most take it in a stride, and many actually thrive on it. Yes, some of use love Denise Pope, and love even more talking about how stressed they and their kids are, and soon enough it sounds as if it is everyone's problem. Don't you believe it!

Fifteen years ago it was Mary Phiper and the lost "Ophelias." Same adoration, same sense that "we must do something about girls." Until it turned out that girls have been doing fine, thank you, since 1980s when they reaches parity with boys, and now we have almost 2:1 women in college and with degrees. "But we still don't have enough women engineers" they say. What about not enough male doctors, teachers, lawyers, or psychologists? People have too much time on their hands.

I put four kids through Palo Alto system (Gunn), three never stressed, one slightly stressed (competition with his siblings rather than with his peers :-) Lots of APs, mediocre amount of sports, a lot of extra-curricular activities. All made it happily through colleges that include caltech & Stanford.

Quit worrying! Encourage your child to select stuff that interest him/her and *always* encourage taking the highest lanes -- the peers are much smarter, the discipline much better, and the learning more fun. Don't you believe the dummies that limit their kid's APs because of their own stress and worry.

Good luck! High school has much more to offer than the limited-choice middle school!

Posted by laura, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 18, 2010 at 8:26 am

Anon is absolutely right. The group of peers here is wonderful, at least that was our experience at Gunn. Sure, it is competitive but close friendships with other brilliant friends are what sustained our kids through all the busywork, stress, lack of sleep, etc. They formed study groups to deal with multiple tests on Fridays. Hurray for Palo Alto and the wonderful education here.

Posted by Worried, a resident of another community
on Oct 18, 2010 at 8:49 am

Thanks again, everyone--this is very encouraging.

Another Anonymous: Yes, my child does have input and has a strong preference for Gunn. (Neither he nor we are interested in boarding school.)

Behappy: Thanks--this was very helpful, especially since our son will be coming from a private school that we've all been happy with, on the whole. He attended a very good public school for four years before that and was fine with it until the final year, when his "gifted" class was saddled with more homework than I even got in college. He has a lot of homework now too but, being four years older, is able to handle it. I like the fact that in public schools, students' classmates live close by instead of being scattered all over, which makes getting together outside of school a big production (at least until they can drive!).

Anon: Thanks for your suggestion about taking the highest lanes--I think that will probably work out best.

Laura: It's good to hear that there are really great peers--thanks!

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 18, 2010 at 9:28 am

Just final comments on my seemingly out of left field recommendation to consider boarding school for HS. There are pluses and minuses to everything.
There are some outstanding boarding schools out there. They can have a particular culture that is lasting, and that can create links to people around the world.
Ours applied to boarding school for a specific enrichment. Students come from all over and a wide variety of economic circumstances.

Boarding school is not a blanket solution to the complaints or woes of typical school districts.
But - there may be several or more merits to consider if one is openminded about secondary education.

With technology one can stay in touch as much as is appropriate.

In fact, the stress can be quite strong at boarding school, I wouldn't call the ones I know "easy," by any means, however in the main it is a postive stress. Frankly, I saw more of a connection between an individual's personal efforts and a result. With generally smaller classes, students MUST be accountable and speak up.
There is no such thing as English papers, say, not being returned for many weeks (such as I recall happening here, with resulting stress for the student who hasn't had prompt feedback or the grade).
Still, a few kids can't manage themselves at that stage and don't have a match, however it CAN be an awesome growth experience for many. We met more diverse folks than we expected.
What's more, the schools I know are operated in a more straightforward manner; there is far less bureaucracy, no "local holidays" and my eyes were opened when I saw this can be a life changing experience. That's a term often used, so give it respect even if it's not for your family.
Administration can be much more accountable. I'm not criticizing current PAUSD school administrators, to my knowledge there aren't any current controversies or concerns, but there sure HAVE BEEN in the not so recent past, here AND elsewhere, and in my experience this is less likely in a private school. Incidentally, I didn't have much contact with administrators; my students handled their affairs, a great advantage when moving to college.
BTW they system was: when they were there, they went full-bore all day with an incredibly packed schedule; when at home they were almost always "completely off" without too many assignments hanging over their heads. Just a thought...

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2010 at 10:02 am


I see your point about parents being the problem because I'm getting the feeling that Worried and the "embrace stress" parents may actually WANT the work overload in the subjects they care about. If Math and Biology make kids lose hours of sleep and they are in the "brilliant" category of kids, so be it

very informative posts


it may not be puzzling anymore if you consider that many parents are OK with unnecessary out of control work overload, as long as their kids are hanging out with other overworked stressed out brilliant kids

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2010 at 10:05 am

and for the rest of us, there's always the

blessings of a B Minus!

Posted by SVmom, a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 18, 2010 at 10:10 am

Having 2 kids one currently at Gunn High school, my experience has been that a lot of the stress is a combination of both the parent's expectations from the child (there are many high achieving parents in this community) as well as the kids expectations from themselves. If your child wants to be the best in his class that is asking for an extreme amount of stress because there are so many brilliant students. But if the child is prepared to work hard and do the best he can and be proud of his efforts then he will be awarded with a wonderful school experience and the ability to thrive in college. My child was a varsity level athlete, had a busy social life and always went to sleep before 12:00. He maintained a 3.8 GPA and had a great time at school. He also learned a healthy lesson in humility that has stood him well in college - there will always be someone who is smarter than you - just do the best you can. There are wonderful teachers at Gunn that truly care about the students and love teaching.

Posted by NewAge, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 18, 2010 at 10:40 am

Indeed this is an interesting question. But I think the discussion here misses the bigger picture.

Have folks considered that whilst there certainly is stress at the high school level (from being a teenager, from being among high achieving classmates, etc.), in reality this "stress" is absolutely no different than if you were a student at UCLA or Princeton or LSU? And no different than if you were working at a competitive high tech company with a mortgage and kids to support?

Are you folks actually saying the stress in a Palo Alto high school is WORSE than the situations I describe? I don't think so. Rather, we should tell our kids that "yes - high school is stressful" but it is NOT when compared to the rest of life. And instead.... we should teach them to learn how to deal with stress, rather than finding artificial ways to lessen stress.

Posted by Pamela Collman, a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 18, 2010 at 10:42 am

It used to be entirely possible to work hard in high school, plan to attend one of the top colleges in the nation or state and still have fun with friends and extra-curricular activities. I don't think I agree with having to be bogged down with so much AP (advanced placement) course work unless you are intending to get actual college credit for it, not just see if you measure up to college standards. Its often better to take less rigorous, time demanding courses and do really well in them and save time for spending with friends or doing fun activities. Grades, test scores and extra-curicular activities are still what colleges look at before which courses a student took and how many he or she took at one time! If you can learn to balance and make it fun in high school, it will be easier to do that when you get to college. One AP class should be enough or else you may want to consider attending college early as most students end up repeating the course in college anyway!

Posted by a parent, a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 18, 2010 at 11:56 am

sometimes teachers assign lots of work and move faster than necessary to weed kids out of their classes - it is easier to teach a smaller, homogeneous class. some departments do it as a point of pride.

not all teachers or departments use this class size reduction scheme, but enough to add significantly to stress.

Posted by Wynn Hausser, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 18, 2010 at 12:39 pm

From my point of view, it is healthy that we are even talking about stress. It is part of the overall emotional and physical health of our students and we have not been good in the past about addressing that topic.

If I could change one thing about our high schools it is the starting time. Sleep is the area in which most kids suffer a lack and every study that comes out reinforces how critical it is, especially at this age. We are forcing teenagers to perform at times that don't coincide with their body clocks as they grow. I understand there are issues with afternoon sports and activities. But even starting classes later a day or two a week would help, rather than letting the kids our early.

The thing I've heard over and over again about APs is that a significant number of students take basically the same class at Foothill or De Anza over the summer, then come back to take the AP course so they can inflate their GPA. That means that teachers start covering the material even faster because many students need to know it, and the typical kid whose life and parents aren't so driven face a much more difficult time.

Posted by Worried, a resident of another community
on Oct 18, 2010 at 12:59 pm

parent: I'm not sure why you think I'm an "embrace stress" parent--I'm just the opposite, actually. I don't want work overload, but I do want challenge--which doesn't have to (and shouldn't) mean tons of homework. For example, in my son's 4th-grade "gifted" class, he had to do 80 long-division problems in one night. That's useless--once a kid understands the process, there's no need to waste time repeating the same thing over and over again. In his current 8th-grade intensive math class, he gets 4-10 very challenging problems per night. The same was true in 7th grade (which actually began with a unit on combinatorics that many parents couldn't fathom). He has a few students in his class this year who have already done calculus, so he is used to not being the "best" or most advanced. Our philosophy has always been that he should work hard and do his best, and that's enough. Last year, many of his math classmates were miserable, staying up for hours to complete just a few problems and feeling like failures when they couldn't get them or had to have their parents do them. Our son tried all the problems, but when he couldn't get them all (which happened a lot), he'd stop, just making sure that he understood them the next day when the teacher went over them in class. He didn't get the highest grade in the class, but he was happy with his work and did well enough to go on to the intensive 8th-grade math class (which was entirely his choice, as it had been in 7th grade--worried about stress, we'd actually wanted him to be in the "regular" one then).

On the subject of stress in general, I think today's high school students have much more stress than college students do, simply because of what's happened in college admissions. I've spoken with many, many high-achieving seniors, and their lives are unbelievably busy and stressful. Many get by with just a few hours of sleep a night. I really feel for them--I wish things could be the way they were back when I was in school. We had it a lot easier--much less homework, much less stress, and relatively easy admission (compared with the situation today) to top schools.

Posted by Jarrod, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 18, 2010 at 1:34 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Ze'ev Wurman, a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 18, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Ze'ev Wurman is a registered user.

I just wanted to throw in my experience with less than the highest lane.

I discouraged one of my kids from taking AP physics in his senior year. It was clear he was not interested in math or science, and I wanted him to have a broad sense of physics rather than the fast, deep, and furious, program of the AP class. The Honors Physics syllabus at the time (2004-5, Gunn) looked excellent - not only mechanics & EM, but also optics, heat, whatever.

Inquiring about what he was doing in the first month, I got kinematics as the answer. Same answer in the second month. When I heard the same answer in the third month, I checked the syllabus yet again -- they were clearly 6-8 weeks behind -- and asked to schedule a meeting with the teacher. Turns out the teacher (nice & young physicist but somewhat inexperienced teacher) didn't move to the next unit because "there was always some student that indicated misunderstanding of the subject" and the teacher felt he needed to explain the topic yet again. To make a long story short, even though the teacher finally moved to the next unit (perhaps our meeting had something to do with that ;-) he never covered even half of the syllabus and, rather than get a broad exposure to physics I expected, my son got both a narrow and shallow exposure instead.

Some would say it was simply a matter of inexperienced teacher, as it surely was. But in AP class both teacher and students know they cannot casually ignore half of the syllabus. So not only the teacher, but also the peers wouldn't stand for such meandering.

I think there is a lesson there. Self selection works.

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2010 at 2:49 pm


thank you for bringing up the fear factor that causes parents to push kids into the higher lanes, the fear of being in the slacker lanes

let's say there are three tiers of students - slackers, average, and achievers

it seems the self-selection process has gone amuck because to weed out the slackers and the average kids, the work overload is now and evermore on steroids - precisely to attract what are increasingly capable and bright kids, Palo Alto must have at least half or the population in the achiever tracks

the work overload is not constrained by anything, just who has the guts to handle it

all things being equal - if the only thing that increases here is the work load, nobody is being served very well

parents will be happy that their brilliant kids made the cut to pour their guts into HS, the average kids will be in no man's land, and the slackers are not necessarily served either

the question I have is whether the work load is really warranted, or it's a way to weed out kids

speaking of Physics, what's the formula to still achieve something with the least amount of energy?

three hours of Biology homework, staying up until 4 am, and "breezing" through college because HS was so hard does not seem smart to me,

but I also dislike the idea of slacker world as the option

seems there is room for overall policing work loads, and improving the mid-level lanes,

that would not hurt the achievers, give more options to the average kids, and maybe even the slackers could get motivated

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2010 at 2:57 pm

on second thought, maybe policing the work loads would mean there would be even more achievers, so competition would be too level

clearly the current system satisfies a large part of the population but am not convinced it's healthy or smart long term

Posted by Mom of a Paly student, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 18, 2010 at 3:10 pm

" Is it possible to be a happy, relatively unstressed but extremely high-achieving Gunn or Paly student?"

Answer: "No! Absolutely impossible!"
Change of the schedule will solve just a minor problem. I agree with Palo Alto mom (1-st comment), that the teachers' attitude and lack of instruction in class are major causes of stress. Unfortunately, we can't fight this issue locally, for, this is a general problem of american education. Even world famous physicist Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman, who about 50 years ago tried to make math textbooks better, was completely defeated by Californian school bureaucracy.
Thus, what parents of those students who want to take high level classes can do now? Just try to find good sources of education outside of school: buy good textbooks and hire good tutors.

Posted by Ze'ev Wurman, a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 18, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Ze'ev Wurman is a registered user.

Different kids have different needs and different interests. Clearly there are things the school and district can do -- coordinating homework, monitoring teachers, and similar -- but I don't think that the school or the district need to do anything to "solve" the problem of stress. High schools offers choices to parents and students, and the school and the district should make sure that they deliver what they promise to deliver in the syllabi. They should also offer counseling, particularly when requested. But they should not be in the business of lowering expectations for all to appease some segment of the community, or to protect some parents from envy of other people's children.

Once every few years I hear some fools raise yet again the idea of limiting the number of AP classes a student can take, or something similar. Luckily, after initial enthusiasm, cooler heads tend to prevail and the idea is buried until the next wave of anxiety comes up. Our education should be about excellence, about allowing each kid to go as far as he or she can go, rather than about educating everyone to the average or about limiting everyone to pander to a few fearful souls.

The school should provide the best information it can and trust the parents to take care of the best interest of their children. Delegating the responsibility for one's children to the school is irresponsible both for the parent and for the school. The results of parent's decisions might be imperfect, but they are much more perfect than they would be if these decisions were done by someone else other than the parent.

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2010 at 4:05 pm


the fear works both ways, from those in pursuit of excellence to those that want things dumbed down

though I agree that the schools should stick to delivering on syllabi

I do think they have minimal to no technology or creativity in monitoring work loads or where they are warranted, and when its' unnecessary because it's largely left to individual teachers

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2010 at 4:13 pm

wouldn't hurt to independently and objectively monitor sillabis either,

you're familiar with Everyday Math,

nothing should be a sacred cow

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Perhaps it is time to discuss the possibility of doing away with the grades system altogether and start revisiting the system whereby exams which cover one or even two full year's work should be invoked. Someone has already mentioned the British A level system and since that has been revamped in recent years, perhaps some similar system would work at the higher prestige high schools. We know that for students who pass the CAHSEE without any problem in 10th grade a system like this may work. For those who have difficulty passing the CAHSEE or do not pass until their senior year, the present grading of GPAs could still suffice.

Posted by bill kelly, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 19, 2010 at 12:15 am

a lot of the stress of high schoolers is transmitted by parents and friends wanting to get into better colleges; as all the kids take SAT prep courses, this of course un-games the system and kids then have to take AP's and more AP's to 'get an edge'. What everyone doesn't realize is this is a rat race; with everyone trying to get an edge, the edges are removed and the goals are set higher and higher.

I told my kids when they entered Gunn to remove Ivy League colleges from their lists; their are 3000 colleges and I was pretty sure they could get into one of them. Yes if you aren't gifted in math then take a lower track, it still works; these are talented kids, what doesn't come out in Math may come out in theatre, art, sports, volunteerism; we have to accept that kids have academic lives, social lives, community lives, art lives, sport lives and what ever else they want to achieve and this creates a REAL human, not just the AP until we drop mentality.

Two of my kids have found wonderful college matches and are very happy. I'm sure my last kid at Gunn will also find her path.

Posted by parent, a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 19, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Going back to the first reply:

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of the Embarcadero Oaks/Leland neighborhood, on Oct 16, 2010 at 10:53 am

In another thread, a student from Gunn put is well, the daily homework from teachers (and often, their attitude and lack of instruction in class) is a major cause of stress.

I would have to agree with the students comments. I think something similar came out in a student survey.. Many teachers at Gunn do not teach... they maybe very nice but they simply don't teach.
Kids should not be required to study in groups because the lessons are so poor. There are many ridiculous, absurd things that happen at Gunn because the teachers are not accountable, they can basically teach as little as possible and give very difficult tests. So now you know why kids need tutors at Gunn, because they don't have real instructers and they will have very difficult tests.

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