Editor's note


The essay "High school life: To whom it may concern" was initially submitted to the Weekly without intent of publication in order to provide insight into issues that the author, a teacher, observed among students at Gunn High School. With the teacher's permission, the Weekly is publishing it because it presents a powerful perspective not normally heard by the public.

It is presented anonymously in order for the focus to be on the content.

While the teacher writes about his experiences at Gunn, his observations apply to both Palo Alto high schools and to high schools in all high-achievement communities.

In discussions with the author, school officials and others who have long been involved with Palo Alto teens, we found that the author is not alone in the perception of the issues and challenges facing our schools and community.

Substantial efforts have been made at Gunn and in the Palo Alto Unified School District in the past 18 months to recognize and improve responses to students' emotional needs and well-being. Individual students and teachers, administrators and parents have responded creatively and with great care in many important areas, from extending themselves personally to any teen who might need a listening ear to hosting youth forums and workshops with experts in adolescent development. Publishing this piece is not intended to minimize or ignore these efforts, which will be the subject of ongoing reporting in the future.

The essay does present a clear picture of the magnitude of the challenge that remains, and of the importance of creating lasting changes in our community's culture that will enhance the emotional balance of our teenagers.

Next week the Weekly will publish responses to the essay from a panel of individuals who have been actively involved with Palo Alto schools and teens, to provide additional perspective and context.

And we invite young persons themselves to comment on the issues raised in the essay and reactions to it. The voices of young persons are a vitally important component in this continuing dialogue that addresses the very roots of our lives and culture.

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Posted by P. Hedgie
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 3, 2010 at 11:53 pm

I am a former California teacher, now retired and living in Europe.
A Palo Alto friend sent me this essay. I have forwarded it to other friends, teachers, and counselors.

This is a very perceptive teacher. [I hope he/she will never be evaluated primarily on his/her students' test scores!]

I suggest that those looking at this tragedy take ten steps back and look at the culture of the community as well as that of the school. My guess is that the adults don't know what to do because they have both overt and underlying fears of their own. How many have a relaxed happy satisfied life? How many have daily leisure time to share love and friendship? How many are confident of the future? Or, are they driven to a frenetic pace by fear?

There are certain fears which, seen from Europe, look particularly Amercian: Middle class families who fear they are but steps away from poverty, homelessness, rejection and abandonment by all. These anxieties can push individuals to work longer and harder, to strive for promotions in jobs they do not enjoy, to buy that too-expensive home in a better neighborhood because it has "better" schools, etc., and to convey to their children how they must (super)achieve or they won't survive.

How did we American arrive at this, and do we want to continue?
If we want to change it, how can we do that? What we have created, we can change.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 4, 2010 at 9:09 am

I agree with P Hedgie.

There is a lot wrong with the American educational system and a lot of the academic pressures here don't occur in Europe. For example, in Britain, students usually only do 2 or 3 A levels, and often have two years in which to study for them. Also the exams are proper exams where a student is expected to write essay type answers to questions rather than multiple choice. This means that they have to think rather than parrot the correct answer.

Also, I would like to see a lot less busy homework which start in the younger grades. The kids nowadays are not able to write intelligently.

Additionally, parents in Palo Alto are trying to turn their kids into what they want to judge as success. Parents are not letting their kids mature at their own pace or make a few mistakes. The kids are entering college and unable to stand on their own two feet because they have always had everything done for them by their parents. Parents need to take a step back from their kids and let the kids do the growing up.

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Posted by Kathy
a resident of another community
on Sep 4, 2010 at 11:50 pm

I strongly believe that AP should be eliminated completely. Honors courses are fine, but these kids are taking college courses in high school at a time when their learning should be accompanied by social interaction, not isolation. I realize the College Board as well as universities must get on board with this idea in order to create a level playing field. I had a child who took many AP courses. She did very well in terms of her grades. She also had only five hours of sleep a night, was president of the student body, participated in school musicals and many other activities. And every holiday or summer vacation she would have "pre-AP class" homework/reading that was so overwhelming that at times I had to create an hour-by-hour schedule for her because she just could not wrap her mind around all of it at once. Yet, her commitment to the highest level of achievement remained. And she is resilient. Not all kids are as resilient. It is the adult community that created this problem. We need to stop it. Banishing AP across the nation is one way.

1 person likes this
Posted by Former Gunn Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 9, 2010 at 11:43 am

My child attended Gunn, he graduated last year. While at Gunn, he took AP classes, since he was a fresh man, his dream was to get to the university of his choice. He worked very hard, he donated his time to the Recording for the Blind and Dislexic, even when he had already met the requirements, he hosted the Spanish club and meet with more than 20 students once a week. He was doing pretty good, till the series of incidents who really affected his performance. Today he is at home healing from the trauma of lossing his classmates, and trying to understand why did they took their lives. He believes Gunn was an awful place to spend the last 4 years, he worked so hard for nothing, he got out of school, his dreams were not accomplished, and now is taking it easy and getting professional help. Our family dream is that he recovers from this trauma, and stays alive. I wish I could go back, and have a healthy child, as he was when he was before coming to Gunn. Today I am advocating for the schools to be a better place for everyone. Let's hope that one day the culture of this town changes to benefit every student.

Like this comment
Posted by pamom
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 9, 2014 at 3:39 pm

High Schools today are much more demanding than what I experienced forty years ago. There were no AP's back then. The best way to relieve this high pressure would be to get rid of AP's nationwide. It's is understandable that the top universities want high standards but when students make the grades and high scores, then there should be a lottery. In other words, let students know what it takes to make it to a UC/or special program/university: what GPA, what SAT/ACT scores are needed. Then put those who meet that criteria into a lottery and choose students that way. This would go a long ways in helping to reduce the ever increasing competition.

Initially, there were only a few AP's and students used them to distinguish themselves as more qualified than other students. That race has just intensified over the years to include many community service hours, activities where the student excels or leads, perfect grades, perfect SAT scores.

There are other factors but the big one is the selection process at our top universities. If they continue to demand perfect students, this stressful culture will remain.

1 person likes this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 9, 2014 at 8:41 pm

@pamom, Cubberley sure did have APs 40 years ago. And high SAT scores were much harder to get before they fudged the curves in 1995. A 720 verbal back then is worth a 790 today.

Like this comment
Posted by pamom
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 10, 2014 at 12:06 pm

@musical -- it's true that the first AP pilot program was in 1952, but the program did not become widespread until the 1970's and 80's. Also, AP's started out with fewer offerings and added more on over the years. Not sure that the SAT tests are easier today. But the point is, a lower GPA and SAT score could get you to Stanford or the UC's. Adding to that, there is far more emphasis on community service hours and excelling in an activity. Clearly, it is more difficulty to get in. The universities report how they accept fewer and fewer of the students who apply.

My point stands.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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