Thank you to all of the Gunn students who have spoken out recently after the suicide of your classmate. It's your courage and honesty that will help us change things for the better. I'm a Paly parent and a Paly grad. We're across town, but we understand Gunn all too well, and we have the same problems you do.
Our kids need to thrive, not just survive. We're hopeful that Dr. McGee can lead us out of this crisis. We have fresh faces on the school board to reinvigorate it. I say we need to broadly rethink our high schools. Piecemeal efforts won't work. Why don't we design a more elegant solution? Let's get creative and do something absolutely breathtaking.
Humanize our schools
We need to radically, explicitly, boldly and relentlessly make our schools more welcoming, humane places for our kids. Study progressive private schools; consult IDEO and the d.school at Stanford. This is a huge challenge, given our culture, so we have to use blunt instruments, not chisels.
Make sure no child is left behind socially or emotionally. Let's architect a structure built on kindness and inclusion, where every single child is accounted for and no one falls through the cracks. Make end-to-end mentoring part of school culture, so everyone stays connected.
Create small learning communities for all students. How small would a graduating class need to be to support each and every student deeply and fully? Figure out the right size and create small communities for our kids. Expand the Teacher Advisor program, hire more counselors. Research shows that student cohorts make a huge difference.
Let's double down on what we're already doing to make Gunn and Paly happy, nurturing places. Hold spirit activities year-round; make therapy dogs a persistent presence; have climate officers on student council. Make the good things from off-campus such as yoga, ping-pong and music part of daily life on campus.
Student stress is directly tied to the academic arms race. We want a college-prep environment, but not one that creates achievement robots and sacrifices mental health. We've become a training academy in the extreme fighting sport of academic excellence. We're in a Hobbesian state of nature, suffering from way too much of a good thing.
Driven by their passion for excellence, teachers are deeply invested in the prestige of their programs and how they dispense grades. Practices vary widely; by law teachers have the last word; departments operate in impenetrable black boxes. But the teachers are not to blame; that would be like blaming the bureaucrats for a bureaucracy.
How to fix this? The superintendent should provide strong leadership in the form of specific, accountable measures to improve how we teach, assess and support our students.
The grading practices and distribution in every course should be audited each semester for accountability. Grading contracts should be rationalized to create student success around mastery in weighting tests, quizzes, projects and homework. A's should not be a brass ring, and kids should not live in fear of C's. Kids know they don't want a lot of B's on their transcripts.
For example, drop lowest scores, allow retakes and rewrites to demonstrate mastery, accept late work, have project-based grading options. Limit homework; have it help, not hurt, a student's grade. Allow extra credit. Keep content at the course level; test what's been taught. If a course is taught in a more accessible manner at one school, use this method at the other.
Limit the number of honors and AP courses a student can take at one time, with a petition system for exceptions; include the option to switch credit to a "regular" course for a letter grade higher. Add more UC-approved courses for the average student. Create an "academy" option, which for philosophical reasons does not use honors or AP designations.
Make it easy for the average student to do independent study, community college and online college courses for credit, so all students can expand their horizons and manage their load better. There are lots of ways to grow and learn: We should encourage kids to pursue off-campus experiences to develop their identity and experience success outside the campus bubble.
Parents, let's step up
Finally, as the adults sending our kids on this academic juggernaut, we have to own the fact that we are either part of the problem or part of the solution. We can start changing things today, even if the schools won't, or until they do.
Visit Savethe2008.com and support "Save the 2008" at Gunn. This new grass-roots initiative was founded by Gunn sophomore Martha Cabot and former English teacher Marc Vincenti to advocate "steps to sanity" in our schools. It took me just a second to join its email list, and what the initiative is doing helps Paly families too.
Visit MyPausd.org, another grass-roots initiative to create an unofficial guide to our district. Help crowdsource a guide to the schools and curriculum, like the Harvard Q guide. Anecdotal information can become perfect information to help families navigate and drive change where it's needed.
Take the "Stay Inspired Pledge" (on MyPausd.org) together as a family to draw a line in the sand in accordance with your values. It's misguided to think your kid has to do everything. Your kid should emerge a more inspired, exceptional student if you rethink how you are doing school.
When I went to Paly, we had the same problems; they're just way worse now. So kids, we do understand, whether you're suffering in silence or making the best of it. Thank you students for speaking truth; now together let's do something about it.
Cathy Kirkman, a retired lawyer, graduated from Paly in 1980. She has two children (Paly 2012 and 2020). She blogs on Palo Alto Online ("Love that Pup") and together with other volunteers has started MyPausd.org, an unofficial guide to the school district. She can be reached at email@example.com.