We read with sadness the email sent reporting the death by suicide of yet another student at Gunn. As parents of two current students at Gunn, we feel it is time to speak out. Gunn High School is a pressure cooker that has created a toxic environment for our children. We feel strongly that PAUSD Administration and the Board should openly acknowledge the overly competitive culture at Gunn and take steps to change it to one that supports and nurtures our children.
Even before this most recent tragedy, we had been planning to write. We've been observing previously upbeat, motivated, hard-working and self-confident middle school students transformed into stressed, insecure and depressed high schoolers. Some juniors are taking four and five AP courses and struggling with little sleep and low morale. What caused this dramatic change? We believe it's the hypercompetitive atmosphere that has taken over the school. Instead of striving to learn, students strive to get their GPA's up as high as possible by grabbing that extra grade point for accelerated coursework (the 5.0 for an A). They feel compelled to go to that name college with the false assumption that a 4.5 GPA will serve them better than a 4.0. What started as a small snowball of students taking accelerated courses has turned into an avalanche that is sweeping children away.
At no other point in life is a person expected to be good at everything history, English, calculus, chemistry, sports and social life. Those kids who do successfully navigate 10 AP courses in high school will they look back on these years as formative or punitive? When they graduate from Harvard, will they feel fulfilled or like they have never left the rat race? What is the long-term goal?
Given the unremitting and toxic competitive stresses, it is incumbent on the school system to step in and provide more structure to the decisions that these teens make for their coursework. For many, their ambitions are simply bigger their abilities. Even if the students are capable of the massive homework, they are missing out on enjoying their youth and, most importantly, on making lifelong rich friendships.
We believe there should either be a strict limit to the number of AP courses students can take or the number for which they can get that extra grade point. Better yet, AP courses could be eliminated in entirety a path taken by several prestigious high schools (Scarsdale, Riverdale, Fieldstone and many others) with no detriment to college acceptances. Yes, parents and students will complain, but by encouraging our kids to live full lives with healthy goals, Palo Alto schools will ultimately be doing the best for the community it serves.
A version of this letter was originally sent to Superintendent Max McGee and the Board of Education