Guest Opinion: How do we inspire great students to be great people? | October 3, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - October 3, 2007

Guest Opinion: How do we inspire great students to be great people?

by Kevin Skelly

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak to the National Merit Scholar semi-finalists at Palo Alto High School. I have had the chance to meet with these scholars many times as a principal, teacher and district official. I am always struck by the extraordinary promise and potential in these students.

While I congratulated the students, I also told them that the recognition they received was not just their own. For whatever reason, these students possess remarkable academic gifts. Yes, they have studied hard, but so have many other students.

Because they have received extraordinary gifts, I urged them to find ways to share their talents and abilities with the world.

When our students realize that their talents are not solely their own doing, my hope is that they will also develop a sense of gratitude that will serve them well and, yes, keep them humble as they pass from our tutelage into full adulthood.

But it is more than being humble. Students also need to be both grateful and responsible. It is the nature of young people to think that the world revolves around them. Today, few of them need to have jobs or do chores or be responsible to the rest of their family. As adults, we are constantly looking for ways to make their lives easier, reduce their stress and free up their time so they can study or participate in an impressive array of activities.

They are, in many ways, more independent and less responsible to others when they are students than they will be at any other time in their lives.

I believe that this raises student stress.

If our students do not feel a connection and a responsibility to those around them, a sense that others depend upon them and a sense of gratitude, they are much more likely to feel alone and lose perspective. The chances are greater, I believe, that they will lose the real meaning of their studies and become overstressed by the challenges that are a part of being an adolescent.

Ironically, a sense of gratitude is made all the more difficult by the nature of our extraordinary community. Far less than 1 percent of all seniors in the country are recognized as National Merit Semi-finalists while more than 9 percent of PAUSD seniors were so recognized this year. In this particular category, few districts, if any, can match Palo Alto.

While this article focuses on National Merit students, these same ideas about talent, gratitude, and responsibility apply to all of our students. By any criteria, our students are significantly above their national peers in terms of academic and non-academic gifts.

Ask educators in Palo Alto and they will tell you that this generation of students is the most gifted group of young people they have ever seen.

Because we live in a community with so many gifted children, it is easy for them (and us) to lose track of how appreciative we should be when our relative position in the world is so strikingly different from our absolute place in it.

Just as we parents do, our students compare themselves to their immediate peers. Many of us grew up as big fish in small ponds. While our children's pond may be as small, it is filled with lots of other big fish, like them.

This makes for difficult swimming and a different set of challenges for them, and for us. It is the nature of Palo Alto as the center of the world's innovation to draw the most talented, brilliant and gifted in the world. Reminding our students of the real nature of the world and exposing them to ways they can make it better because of their gifts is important for their sake, and the world's.

These are complicated topics, but ones that students, educators and parents must ponder. Making sense of all this isn't easy and writing about it is far easier than putting it into practice personally.

Yet our young, precious gifts count on us for wisdom and direction. I look forward to participating in our ongoing community conversation about how best to help all of our promising young people.

Kevin Skelly was named superintendent of the Palo Alto Unified School district this summer and resides in the Barron Park neighborhood. He can be e-mailed at


Like this comment
Posted by Greg Kimura
a resident of Triple El
on Oct 26, 2007 at 1:08 am

Thank you for taking on the issue of inspiring greatness rather then just great students. The academic pressure to create great students creates far too many unhappy, stressed out and depressed children in our community. This pressure is mirrored in the absurdly heavy backpacks of our Middle schoolers and the crushing hours of homework our high schoolers must bear each day. We are stealing our children's childhood, and many are more burnt out and depressed than their parents.

The soulless pursuit academic excellence is just another dysfunctional
materialism. It speaks poorly of our values and crushes the spirit of our children.

What is lacking with our students is what is lacking with our parents: They "do not feel a connection and a responsibility to those around them, [or] a sense that others depend upon them." Not that Palo Altoans don't care, but they don't feel an intimate connection with those around them. This is endemic to the whole country, but communities of affluence are particularly vulnerable.

We lack community in the deepest sense of the word. A place with a shared sense of destiny. A place with the sense that what happens to one affects all. A place where we are all elevated when we help elevate all others.

I believe that every single person comes into this world with a gift to be discovered, nurtured and lovingly received. I would love to see our education system and community based around this. A poem:

(For Malidoma Some’)

You enter life a ship laden with meaning, purpose and gifts
sent to be delivered to this hungry world,
and as much as the world needs your cargo,
you need to give it away.
Everything depends on this.

But the world forgets its needs,
and you forget your mission, and
the ancestral maps used to guide you
have become faded scrawls on the parchment of dead Pharaohs.
The cargo weighs you heavy the longer it is held.
Spoilage becomes a risk.
The ship sputters from port to port and at each you ask:
“Is this the way?”
But the way cannot be found without knowing the cargo,
and the cargo cannot be known without recognizing there is a way.
It is simply this:
You have gifts.
The world needs your gifts.
You must deliver them.

The world may not know it is starving,
but the hungry know,
and they will find you
when you discover your cargo
and start to give it away.

Greg Kimura

Like this comment
Posted by Richard Dawkins
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 3, 2007 at 7:38 pm

that's not a poem, it doesn't even rhyme!

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