A group of student journalists at Palo Alto High School has decided to break with a decadeslong, cherished practice of publishing a map that illustrates where seniors are going after graduation.
For some, The Campanile newspaper's annual college map, searchable by colleges and individuals, is a celebration of seniors' hard work and achievements.
For others, it embodies a toxic, competitive culture and enforces a belief many in Palo Alto and communities across the country are battling: that the only post-high school path worth celebrating is the one through the ivy-covered gates of a top-tier, four-year university.
"The decision was made to try and take a stand against the culture that we've created at Paly," said senior Leyton Ho, one of The Campanile's five outgoing editors-in-chief who together chose not to publish the map this year.
The five editors, all seniors, started to question the value of the map while they were writing their final editorial of the year, which urges the student body to challenge Paly's "culture of achievement." Their thinking was influenced by the nationwide college-admissions bribery scandal that exposed the extreme lengths to which some people will go to gain admission to the nation's elite colleges, including the parents of one of their Paly peers.
The map, which uses students' self-reports of where they're going, has long featured prominently at Paly. Seniors review past maps when they're applying to college and speculate on how or why a student got into a particular school.
Juniors, sophomores and freshmen read it faithfully. Parents wait eagerly for their child to be part of the yearslong tradition. In 2016, the Campanile editors-in-chief defended the map against criticisms from staff members as a factual list that "does not foster competition but rather encourages seniors bound for higher education or alternative paths to take pride in their postgraduate plans."
Yet the map is just one of many graduation trappings at Paly that can feel isolating to some students, from T-shirt day, when seniors come to school wearing clothes from their chosen college, to decorating graduation caps with college names, a practice Gunn High School abolished several years ago but Paly has kept. Conversations about who got accepted where — and who didn't — permeate the campus and social media. Even the subversive college-rejection wall, where seniors post their rejection letters, can reinforce an obsession with a certain set of schools, the Campanile editors said.
"It's not like people are sitting around talking about how much they hate to go to community college. But this is a place full of very ambitious students, and it's a place full of people who want to achieve a lot," outgoing Campanile editor-in-chief Ethan Nissim said. "If you are someone who maybe doesn't have much to contribute to a conversation like that, it does feel like you're being boxed out."
At first, the editors thought they would keep the map, which The Campanile has published since at least the 1980s, but add features that would "diminish the negative effects of it," said outgoing editor-in-chief Waverly Long, including removing student names and including verbatim quotes from seniors on their post-graduation plans. Gunn's student newspaper, The Oracle, publishes in print only a self-reported college map without students' names. Oracle student-editors decided to stop listing student names in 2015, according to journalism adviser Kristy Blackburn.
A few days before they were set to start production on their last edition of the year, debate among the student journalists started up again. After talking with several adults on campus, including Paly's college and career counselor, they decided to do away with the map all together.
"We realized that it's really the students who need to take a stand against the culture," Long said. "We were hoping that future students would (take a stand), and the more we talked about it, we realized there's really no reason why we shouldn't be those students."
The editors published instead a two-page spread with quotes from students and teachers on Paly's college culture and seniors who are choosing non-traditional paths after graduation, such as community college, gap years or international schools.
"College is always on our minds. There's always tension in the air. There's always some kind of looming fear that you're going to mess up. People can seem kind of fake sometimes and it's hard to be able to do what you want because you think there is some 'right thing' that you have to do," senior Andrew Shih told The Campanile.
The Campanile also quoted math teacher Arne Lim, who listed his name on the college map when he graduated from Paly in the 1980s: "You will always hear from us TAs (teacher advisers): College is a match; it is not a reward."
Reaction from students has been mixed, the editors said. Some are disappointed and expected that even if the map wasn't in print, it would still be online.
The decision also sparked some internal dissent at The Campanile, according to the new editors in chief, who learned of their predecessors' decision late into production of the last issue. Other staff members who found out when the paper came out were upset they weren't included in the decision, especially seniors.
"We pretty much agree that the college map is just a presentation of facts and information and it really does depend on how the reader interprets it," said Miranda Li, one of the new editors in chief. Culture change will come from changing peoples' attitudes about college, "not just taking away this information," she said.
Doing away with the map is "ultimately positive," though, in that it gives students the opportunity to reflect on the pros and cons of the tradition, Li said.
The new editors are still considering whether to publish the map next year.
The outgoing editors hope their own questioning of deep-rooted norms surrounding college will inspire others to do the same.
"The burden of improving Paly culture ultimately falls on students — administrators and teachers can only do so much," the editors wrote in their last-ever editorial. "It is the responsibility of students to spend time on things that matter to them, and it is the responsibility of their peers to not judge them for it. At Paly, we've created a culture of achievement. But sometimes, the superficial glory of goal-oriented accomplishment isn't enough to make someone happy on its own."
• Listen to "Behind the Headlines" where departing and incoming student representatives to the Board of Education discuss key district issues of the past year and ongoing concerns of students. The episode is now available on YouTube and our podcast page.