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May 06, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, May 06, 2005

Survey confirms student stress, but next step is unclear Survey confirms student stress, but next step is unclear (May 06, 2005)

Students wonder if problem will ever be solved

by Alexandria Rocha

With about five hours of homework a night and overlapping projects and tests, most Palo Alto High School students say their stress levels are too high. The teenagers also realize parents and teachers are concerned, but remain skeptical that anything will change.

Three weeks ago, about 1,450 Paly students took an online survey about stress. It took them about 15 minutes to complete, and the results -- made public this week -- do not reveal anything all that surprising.

Most students said large amounts of homework cause them the most stress, and that parents -- as well as themselves -- dole out the most pressure to achieve high grades and get into top colleges. Adding to their homework frustrations, students said their teachers rarely indicate how much time assignments should take, nor do they check in to see how long the projects actually took.

For the last few years, it has become public knowledge that students here struggle to make it through high school. The recent suicides of two teens grimly confirmed that reality. Since then, various groups of youth experts, parents, students and teachers have banded together to tackle the issue.

While Paly administrators are confident the survey's results will help conquer the ever-growing problem of student stress -- or at least point out the most blatant red flags -- the teens say they've heard it all before.

"Honestly, I didn't like the whole thing because they always make us take tests and they don't do anything about it," said senior Josh Gordon. "I think it was kind of pointless."

Senior Jean Choi and junior Vivian Nguyen agreed with Gordon, but also recognized the survey as valuable if school officials take it seriously and make some visible changes. Nguyen, however, blames society more than school for the high stress levels.

"I think our society wants everyone to live up to higher standards," she said. "We're all trying to work hard because we want to have a successful life."

One student simply said he has heard enough empty promises.

"We're suppose to have homework holidays, but no teacher's going to follow it," said senior Thomas Lennig. "It's nice that they were trying to stay up to date on our stress, but ... ."

So what can be done?

One concrete change students and most school staff agree on is moving first semester finals to the time before winter break, instead of after, as a way to alleviate stress during the planned vacation. Paly Principal Scott Laurence said about half the school's teachers are currently on board for that change next school year.

"I would like to see us move to that, but I don't think I can dictate it to the entire staff," he said.

Dealing with day-to-day homework is trickier. Senior Mickey Du said homework needs to be aligned between teachers who teach the same classes. Some students like Nguyen say the more homework, the better the challenge. Others say there is no way to lift the pressure students feel from homework assignments.

"I think everything will become stressful eventually because kids will adapt and become lazy and then they'll think two hours of homework is too much," said Gordon, who said he piled on the advanced courses through his sophomore year but eventually switched to a less demanding schedule because of the stress.

The other problem seems to be conflicting opinions on how much homework a typical Paly student actually has each night. Well more than half the students surveyed said it takes them about an hour per subject a night, and most students have five academic classes.

The administrators are doubtful it's regularly that much homework.

"We've been around the system long enough to know it's not five hours a night," Laurence said. "If it's five hours, we need to talk about that as a school."

The varying opinions about homework and other stress factors among students and staff reflects a need for more individualized instruction and smaller schools, said Laurence. He said that topic is currently at the center of a new education reform at the secondary level.

Schools are so overpopulated -- Paly is currently at 1,650 students -- that individual instruction is taking a back seat. Laurence said those supporting the movement, such as teacher and administrator organizations, are pushing for high schools with populations of 400 to 500 teenagers.

"When I was here in the early '80s,when we were at 1,100, it was a lot different," Laurence said. "We have to deal with the students one by one, kid by kid."

Besides questions about homework and pressure, the survey also gathered other data. Students said they feel valued more in English than science classes, and their English teachers are more approachable than those in science or world languages.

More than half of students surveyed said they sleep between six to eight hours a night, and about 70 percent said they eat two or three healthy meals a day. About 90 percent of the students said they were "completely honest" when answering the questions, while only 1 percent said "my pants are on fire."

Results from a similar survey that Gunn High School students took should be available later this month.

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