We need to listen better.
Year after year, our community has repeated this lesson while grappling with incidents of desperate and tragic loss. Yet louder voices prevail, displacing all others in shaping conversation and culture in Palo Alto.
A proposed policy requiring high schools to report weighted grade point average (GPA) — whereby grades in honors and advanced placement (AP) classes are given an additional "point" on a student's transcript — has been touted by proponents as a way to reward students for taking academic risks. The most ardent supporters of this policy are those who speak for the already engaged and passionate students who will undoubtedly benefit from it. As a result, little attention has been paid to protecting the interests of the silent few still struggling to find that same motivation — many of whom likely represent the 61 percent of students who did not respond to the Palo Alto Unified School District survey on the issue.
The school board, however, has an undeniable duty to the underrepresented, bound by its credo to advance the "needs of all district students." (Emphasis added.) Superintendent Max McGee's belief, that reporting weighted GPA will be detrimental to some students, thus places weighted GPA directly at odds with the board's own goals. It is obvious that the board should not further a policy that admittedly fails to advance the needs of all students to whom it owes a responsibility.
Yet the board serves at the pleasure of the community, whose most vocal speakers, ever-present at biweekly meetings, seem to echo the proven mantra of the successful: "Decisions are made by those who show up."
But what about those who cannot?
What of the students fearful of being outed as "underachievers" in a town built on genius — students who are better-suited to learn through extracurriculars and whose grades do not accurately reflect their potential for success? What of the newcomers displaced from afar in search of the best education for their children, still hesitant to voice dissent? What of the busy parents with too little time to devote to late-night board meetings?
What of the 17-year-old me, who would have enthusiastically supported weighted GPA — to his detriment — because he wanted to be just as smart and capable as his peers? The 17-year-old me, to whom AP and honors classes were not "academic risks" but simply what I was "supposed" to do. That experience was not unique; it is a common story, untold except in the memories of countless students who have been pressured into conformity by a culture of academic exceptionalism.
I remember the pressure for achievement that assailed us from the moment we stepped into high school, painting a grim picture of a life where one's potential for success was judged by a precise combination of grades, test scores and strategically chosen activities. While my friends had seemed to race with ease through these scholastic pursuits, I had stumbled along behind them, uninspired and directionless.
Instead, I devoted countless nights to ungraded projects for video production or gourmet cooking; dedicated evenings and weekends to my water polo and swim teams; and spent free periods at school hanging out with friends. But even as my test scores languished, I actively developed the qualities that would later propel me to success in law school and beyond.
My parents, despite an upbringing that emphasized academic rigor, endlessly encouraged me to pursue my passions. Through weekends spent directing movies, and nights spent experimenting in the kitchen, I learned to approach challenges with curiosity and wonder. Hours spent socializing with my peers fostered an ability to relate to all different people of diverse backgrounds. And in undying support of my teammates, I discovered that it was not grades or scores, but heart and voice, that enable success.
But the culture of academic competition at Gunn had never suggested that these qualities would help me excel in the "real" world, so while my friends marched bravely forth wielding 4.0s and 2300s, I slunk along in their shadows, shamefully clutching a 2.6 and hoping that nobody would notice.
Countless stories like mine, left untold, beg the question: How can we focus on shattering the ceiling for students who already possess the tools for success, before building a floor for those still struggling to find them? Those are the students, most often silent in these critical conversations, whose embers we must stoke through an emphasis on engagement and passion, not extinguish through ever-increasing academic peer pressure.
In evaluating the arguments surrounding this issue, at board meetings, among neighbors, or around the dinner table, I implore you not to mistake tacit acceptance with agreement. After all, those who feel their dissent is unwelcome are likely not to openly dissent. And there is no question that Palo Alto's academic culture is intimidating to those who would dare disagree with its results.
If you are resolute in your support of reporting weighted GPA, I will not urge you to reconsider. Instead, I simply ask you to remember that there is no single linear path to success, nor should we accept such a narrowly defined one. Search for the untold stories among your friends, family, teachers and neighbors. And as you strain your ears to hear them, ask yourself whether a quiet voice is less deserving of support than a loud one.
Perhaps this year it falls on me to offer the perennial reminder: We need to listen better.
Editor's note: The Board of Education will vote on weighted GPAs on Tuesday, May 9, at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. View the agenda here.
Shounak Dharap is a class action and personal injury attorney who graduated from Gunn High School in 2008 and currently resides in Palo Alto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.