Grassroots school-reform campaign Save the 2,008 served as a platform at Tuesday night's school board meeting to address broader issues underlying student stress in Palo Alto, from cheating and homework quality to student voice.
Save the 2,008 named for the number of staff and students at Gunn High School in November 2014 following a second teen death by suicide suggests six proposals to "undo the worst conditions of any modern-day high school crowded classrooms, overwork at home and in AP course loads, all-day student phone use, constant grade-reporting, and rampant cheating," co-founder and retired Gunn English teacher Marc Vincenti told the board on Tuesday, wearing a large circular sticker with the abbreviation "S2K8" in red and green, the school colors of Gunn and Palo Alto high schools.
"Undoing these conditions will disperse the fouled air of stress, depression, and distrust that they bring on, so that, once again, ties between classmates, and especially student-teacher working relationships, can grow and bloom," Vincenti said.
Save the 2,008 has been praised as a common-sense action plan by many adults in the community but criticized by students as a set of well-intentioned but out-of-touch suggestions.
At Tuesday's board meeting, nine adults mostly parents in the district all spoke in support of the campaign, compared to three students who expressed concern about bringing more change to Palo Alto's high schools without truly understanding how the plans will affect students and staff.
"Before making decisions that have a large impact on the staff and students, try asking them what they think," said Gunn junior Chloe Sorensen. "It is so, so important. Because if you ask them about Save the 2,008, I think you'll be able to learn a lot."
Gunn junior Shannon Yang echoed Sorensen's sentiments, saying, "I would advise the board to proceed with caution tonight. Undoubtedly, Save the 2,008 is made up of ideas from good-hearted people who want us to have the best high school experience possible here in Palo Alto.
"A policy change to address culture is something the Palo Alto community needs to take gradually, especially because there are inconsistencies between the proposals and what we students need to thrive both academically as well as emotionally."
School board members emphasized that Save the 2,008 appeared on Tuesday's agenda as an informational item, meaning no action would be taken on the six proposals.
Cheating, however, rose to the top of the discussion repeatedly throughout the evening as a prevalent, serious issue that stakeholders who disagreed on other issues agreed that the district needs to address.
Save the 2,008 suggests gathering data around academic integrity, implementing ongoing education about cheating and its consequences, and drafting an honor code "framed not as a strategy for catching cheaters but as a plan for teaching integrity" to address Palo Alto's "anxious climate of cheating."
Several students cited a survey administered by Stanford University education-research group Challenge Success this spring that found only 13 percent of Gunn students had not cheated in any way in the past year. (Paly students are scheduled to take the same survey in late September, according to Associate Superintendent Markus Autrey)
Conversely, there were only 35 incidents of reported academic dishonesty in the 2014-15 school year at Paly, according to data provided by Assistant Principal Adam Paulson.
When asked by board member Ken Dauber to explain the gap between high rates of cheating reported in the Challenge Success survey, as well as the district's own Strategic Plan survey, and the small number of reported cases at Paly last year, Paly Principal Kim Diorio said that cheating goes widely underreported.
"We feel that a lot of the instances of cheating on our campus are underreported because you don't catch the students necessarily," Diorio said. "They're really good at their methods and there's a real culture of secrecy around it."
A story in Paly's student-run Verde Magazine from this April, "Ring of Dishonor: Exposing Paly's Culture of Cheating," detailed the efforts of an organized group of 20 students who had been collaboratively cheating since sophomore year.
Diorio said cheating is a "serious" problem, and a symptom of larger issues around intense academic pressure and high expectations. High-performing Paly students who take on a rigorous workload "tend to be more apt to cheat than some students who have a more balanced course load," she said.
Students who are caught cheating often say they didn't feel like they had sufficient time to do the work themselves or "they felt desperate to get the 'A' at any cost," Diorio added.
Kathleen Ji, a Gunn senior, spoke to the board earlier in the evening about the importance of addressing the pressure that students put on themselves to achieve at a high level to compete with their peers.
Dauber said, "We just don't want schools where students feel like they have to trade off their integrity versus success and performance."
Board vice president Heidi Emberling said she would like to have a future board discussion around cheating and would support convening an advisory committee to look at the issue.
Board member Terry Godfrey stressed the importance of going to the root of the problem and understanding, first, what drives cheating.
Superintendent Max McGee said out of Save the 2,008's six points, confronting the culture of cheating one that exists not only in Palo Alto but at many other schools and environments is of "premiere importance."
He reflected on where he last worked, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), where the students wrote their own honor code and juniors were required to take an ethics lecture series outside of class time, which included small breakout discussion groups led by seniors.
"We need to start thinking about whether we have our own academic integrity code," McGee said.
The board also discussed the importance of class size Tuesday night. Save the 2,008's first step "to sanity" in the school environment is to "shrink classes to a friendlier size, creating a closer feeling between classmates as well as stronger teacher-student ties (which can sometimes become lifelines)," the campaign's plan reads.
"Of all the ways to ease campus pressure, this is the most powerful, because it's the teacher's attention that makes each individual student feel recognized, welcomed, and inspired to learn," the plan continues. "When school life is stressful, changing the teacher-student ratio has the same transformative effect as lowering control rods into an overheated reactor core. And as teachers know, one-on-one attention is the very definition of 'differentiated instruction.'"
Gunn student board member Grace Park said that the "teacher-student bond is absolutely critical to ensuring students are not stressed at school," but questioned whether or not reducing class sizes is the way to achieve that goal.
"If you're in an English class of 35 versus a language class of 15 (students) ... the difference really isn't in the class size so much as it is in the connection that you have with the teacher, the personal connection," she said.
Godfrey said high schoolers she talked to about Save the 2,008's class-size proposal told her they would rather be the 31st student in a class they really want to take rather than miss out on it.
Emberling also pointed out that research shows that investing in smaller class sizes yields the biggest return much earlier than high school in kindergarten through third grade.
Banning student-cellphone use at school Save the 2,008's fourth proposal has proved controversial with many students, but adults, too, defended the benefits of mobile technology on Tuesday night.
"If you are a kid who has organizational problems, this thing is a miracle," Board President Melissa Baten Caswell said, holding her phone. "Let's not pretend this piece of equipment ... isn't way more than just a communications device."
A relatively young board policy, adopted in 2014, does prohibit cellphone use during class instruction unless designated by teachers, and McGee said his impression is that this policy is widely followed.
Dauber said that what is most important about Save the 2,008 is that it focuses on students' everyday lives at school rather than "abstract ideas about culture" or theories about how to cut down on student stress.
It is "that centrality of the classroom and the lived experience of students at school that I think is so important and so insightful here," he said.