Amidst Palo Alto's ongoing community conversation about youth health and well-being one that so often cries out for the youth voice a room full of parents, students, school administrators, city leaders and community members gathered Sunday evening to hear just that.
On a stage at First Congregational Church, 12 Palo Alto and Gunn high school students talked to a standing-room-only audience about their academic, social and personal experiences, both good and bad, as part of "Listening to Youth Voices," a forum organized by a community leaders and organizations. The forum was moderated by Becky Beacom, a health educator with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
The students' comments came at a time of deep reflection for the two high schools, with numerous policy proposals and changes aimed at reducing student stress already in place or on the horizon, from the superintendent's enforcement of a districtwide homework policy to a potential change in bell schedule for Gunn.
Several of the students called for change beyond oft-discussed issues like heavy homework load, oversubscribed advanced placement (AP) classes and rigorous schedules.
"We aim our arrows at false targets," said Gunn senior Jessica Luo, reading a letter she had written to her ninth-grade self. "That's because it's easier to think of culture as a tumor that can be attacked, to throw policy changes like block schedules and homework restrictions at the tumor in the hopes of shrinking it. But the tumor just comes back because the disease is somewhere else.
"The culture and the system are not some monster looming above Palo Alto. The system is made up of your actions and the actions of the people around you," she said.
She urged her freshman-year self to swim against the current and to challenge "all the little assumptions we take as truth," from the value of attending a name-brand college and taking extracurriculars for the sake of appearance rather than passion to the need to stack achievements against one's peers.
"How do we fight the invisible enemy?" Luo asked. "The enemy is fought through noticing, through asking yourself, 'Is this really true? Is this really what I think and not what the culture says?' Doing this is hard. When someone asks you what your hopes and dreams are, making a joke about getting into Harvard is a lot easier than admitting to yourself that you really don't know right now."
Gunn junior Marek Harris similarly spoke of himself and his peers entering high school already steeped in a "preconceived idea that they have to do well."
Paly sophomore Cezanne Lane told the audience about her progression from "ecstatic and curious to tired and worn out," a result of going through the motions, memorizing and rushing through homework assignments and studying instead of actively engaging and learning.
"School has become less and less about learning and exploring the world for me in all of its greatness and more and more about the amount of APs that you're planning on taking next year and what will look good when applying to college and your exact test average compared to the guy next to you," she said.
"I think that's become a really big problem, and I think that may be why I don't love school anymore," Lane added. "Because instead of learning, I'm doing school."
School board member Ken Dauber echoed Lane's sentiments: "We want schools where comprehension is prized over compliance and completion."
Many students also spoke to the need to keep the community's focus on school issues throughout the year, not just when there are dedicated events like Not In Our Schools week, on Unity Day or in the event of a student death by suicide.
They offered suggestions large and small for how to do this, from asking for teachers to simply check in with them by asking how their weekends were when they come into class on Monday to vowing themselves to invite a student eating lunch alone to join a group of friends. Many spoke fondly of teachers and programs that have made their experiences at school positive ones. Luo said her physics teacher has text hanging in the back of his classroom -- so that he can see it while he's teaching -- that reads, "Have you connected with a student today?"
"I really like that because I think that's one of the really important parts of our school that we need to emphasize more. Even when we're advocating policy changes and ways to concretely change how much homework we have or something like that, we should keep in mind that there's this other side to changing the culture as well," Luo said, adding that she will feel heard by the adults in the community when they make efforts to connect with students on a more personal level.
Several students also suggested that Camp Everytown, an intensive weekend retreat that explores issues like racism, stereotypes and bullying, be expanded from the select number of Gunn and Paly students who attend each year to all high school students.
During an open-mic period after the panelists spoke, a student who attends a local private school told about his personal experience with diagnosed depression and suicidal thoughts to stress the importance of helping those suffering from depression or mental illness to seek professional medical help.
"What is the purpose of me sharing my story with you? The purpose is to illustrate that although I am here with you today, I do not think that would be the case if I hadn't received the proper medical care and treatment," he said.
Some of the student-panelists called for improved special education and counseling services, for more teacher collaboration to decrease test and project stacking and for better communication around district-level policy changes that deeply and directly affect students' lives.
Lane said that many Paly students, herself included, didn't know what the homework policy was until recently.
"I've attended a lot of meetings and a lot of different conversations with people who are titles in this community. And I think people will sit and I think people will listen and I think they're willing to do that and I think they're interested I just think as a student there's a bit of a disconnect," Lane said. "We don't know what is happening."
Gunn sophomore Shannon Yang, who spoke during the open-mic period, said students want to feel heard and to know that the decision-makers in the community will "bring reform to what students are saying and follow up."
In closing remarks, Dauber vowed that he and others in leadership positions will put action to words and, as Yang said, follow up.
"My job now, and I think our job, is to turn those ideas into action that will benefit our youth," Dauber said.
Sunday's forum was one in a series of independent events focused on student wellness in recent weeks, from a sleep-education night for parents to a community conversation held this week. There will be another youth forum on Friday, March 27, at 6 p.m. at the Mitchell Park Community Center, at 3800 Middlefield Road.
To watch a video of Sunday's forum, visit the Weekly's YouTube channel.