OUR STARTING POINT

The backdrop for our project is a very high achieving school district (Palo Alto) that resembles many other high-achieving school districts throughout the country, if only a more extreme version. 

We believe that innovating in this context can show the power of purpose-fueled rigor in a high school setting - what happens when meaningfulness is coupled with already highly motivated young people, and when students are freed to chart their own paths through school and life.  Our hope is that we would inspire change not only here in Palo Alto, but could be a model for other high schools around across the nation.

 

Palo Alto is a town known throughout the world.

It stands for innovation, change, and the next big thing. It draws some of the brightest, hardest working people in the world to live within its borders.

 

Many of these families move to Palo Alto in part because of its highly-ranked school district. According to one website, Palo Alto is the best school district in California.

Palo Alto Unified School District has two high schools: Henry H. Gunn High School (known as Gunn) and Palo Alto High School (known as Paly). Both are ranked in the top fifty high schools in California. Gunn is the #11 STEM high school in the country according to U.S. News and World Report. Both schools have an impressive list of college placement: last year Gunn sent 20 students to Stanford and dozens more to the Ivies, UC system, and top liberal arts schools across the country. So, according to traditional metrics both high schools are thriving.

But below the surface students are suffering from an incredible amount of pressure and stress. Palo Alto has made national headlines in the past few years with a string of teen suicides. In 2009-2010 school year, six people took their lives. Six years later, four more teens took their lives. It is the only community in the country to experience two distinct teen suicide clusters in the past decade. The suicide rate in Santa Clara county is five times the national average. And the suicide clusters are only the most publicized part of a larger mental health issue amongst students: last year more than 100 students at Gunn were hospitalized for suicidal ideation. In February of 2016, the Center for Disease Control began conducting a study into the causes for this cluster.

Clearly there is a problem. But it is hard to put a finger on the problem. There is not just “one” thing that leads to the levels of stress and pressure felt by students.

After conducting a series of in depth interviews last fall, we came up with a number of metaphors to explain the high school experience in Palo Alto.

 

CLIMBING EVEREST

“Everything after 5th grade, I started doing for college.
Kids are never approached with: you should think about something other than college.”
— senior at Paly
“In a shallow way, where you go to school is an indicator of how hard you worked in high school. The sad thing is, it’s not about where you actually want to be.”
— senior at Paly

hanging with a pack of olympians

“As a junior, the only thing you can do is fall behind. You can’t really get ahead. You just see opportunity disappearing. It’s that sense of possibility that can only degrade. As soon as you stumble and it starts collapsing, it’s terrifying.”
— veteran teacher at Paly + parent of a Senior
“There’s an emphasis on competition, and they are pitted against each other in the fight for ascendancy. It’s ironic, because in the workforce, you’re needed to be cooperative.”
— father of a Senior at Paly
“The first thing you hear as a frosh (from admins, parents, friends): you can’t screw up, or it’ll mess things up for your GPA for the next 4 years.”
— senior at Paly

oppressive humidity

The "in the air" effect.  

We heard again and again that more than any single aspect of school, or parent involvement, or peer pressure that the expectations students feel (and that is driving the pressure to succeed) is just sort of “in the air.”  It’s like an extreme and oppressive humidity.  Because it doesn’t have a single source, there’s no easy fix.

What brings immunity?

We observed among the students that we spoke with that there are ways to effectively create a “buffer” or degree of immunity against this humidity.  The above list includes ways we’ve observed successful examples of escaping the humidity.

“It’s the community causing the pressure. It’s in the air. Stanford stares at us from across the street.”
— teacher at Paly
“She’s sort of emotionally dead. It’s just really disheartening. She’s been working so hard, she should be seeing some reward at the end of this, but she’s just looking forward to getting out - that’s her reward.”
— parent of Paly senior

an extreme example of a widespread problem

The above metaphors describe an atmosphere that is not plaguing Palo Alto alone  – it is common to many high achieving affluent school districts across the United States. Students in high income, high-octane areas have high rates of depression, substance abuse, and anxiety.

We believe that Palo Alto is just an extreme version of what is going on nationwide; students are under an incredible amount of stress and pressure, but they lack a sense of meaning and purpose behind why they are doing all the work. Of course, this might get you into a great university, but at what expense? And when does life become about actually living it in the moment instead of pursuing some far off idealized future?

In talking to student after student, we were struck by how life to them was one hoop after another: high school, good college, high-paying job, graduate school…and so on. The students felt no sense of space, or freedom to craft their own lives. They felt beholden to an extreme version of success that is idealized in their communities and sanctified as “the” version of success.

 

FURTHER reading

Here are some of the best and most prominent articles on the situation amongst Palo Alto’s youth:

 

 

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