PALO ALTO, Calif. — PALO ALTO HIGH SCHOOL, one of the nation’s most prestigious public secondary schools, is sandwiched between two stark and illusory paths. Across the street to the west, Stanford University beckons as the platonic ideal, a symbol of the road to Google, the White House, the mansion on the hill. To the east, across a bike trail, are the railroad tracks where three boys from the school district have killed themselves this year.
Suicide clusters are relatively rare, accounting for about 5 percent of teenage suicides. Startlingly, this year’s is the second contagion to visit this city. Five students or recent graduates of the district’s other high school, Gunn High School, killed themselves beginning in 2009.
Experts say such clusters typically occur when suicide takes hold as a viable coping mechanism — as a deadly, irrational fashion. But that hasn’t stopped this community from soul searching: Does a culture of hyperachievement deserve any blame for this cluster?
The answer is complex, bordering on the contradictory: No, the pressure to succeed is not unique, nor does it cause a suicide cluster in itself, but the intense reflection underway here has unearthed a sobering reality about how Silicon Valley’s culture of best in class is playing out in the schools.
In addition to whatever overt pressure students feel to succeed, that culture is intensified by something more insidious: a kind of doublespeak from parents and administrators. They often use all the right language about wanting students to be happy, healthy and resilient — a veritable “script,” said Madeline Levine, a Bay Area psychologist who treats depressed, anxious and suicidal tech-industry executives, workers and their children.
“They say, ‘All I care about is that you’re happy,’ and then the kid walks in the door and the first question is, ‘How did you do on the math test?’ ” Ms. Levine said. “The giveaways are so unbelievably clear.”
Denise Pope, an education expert at Stanford, calls this gulf between what people say and what they mean “the hidden message of parenting.”
But here, and in lots of other ultrahigh-achieving communities and schools, Ms. Pope said that children are picking through the static to hear the overriding message that only the best will do — in grades, test scores, sports, art, college. “In everything,” she said.
“I hear students tell me that if I don’t get into X, Y, Z college, I’ll wind up flipping burgers at McDonald’s,” said Ms. Pope, who is working with Ms. Levine to counsel at the high schools.
Ms. Pope said that wrongheaded idea becomes an emotional and physiological threat when multiplied by at least three other factors: technology that keeps teens working and socializing late at night, depriving them of essential rest; growing obligations from test-prep classes and extracurricular activities; and parents too busy to participate in activities with their families.
“We are not teenagers,” Carolyn Walworth, a junior at Palo Alto High School, wrote in an editorial in the local paper in response to the suicides. She described students as “lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition” and wrote of going to the emergency room to deal with stress, missed periods and having “a panic attack in the middle of a 30-person class and be forced to remain still.”
There has been lots of talk in the community about what to do, she wrote, but action has not followed. (The district is providing counseling services, offering a suicide-prevention kit and urging teachers to limit homework hours.)
“Please, no more endless discussions about what exactly it is that is wrong with our schools, and, above all, no more empty promises,” she wrote, and noted: “We are the product of a generation of Palo Altans that so desperately wants us to succeed but does not understand our needs.”
THIS curious idea of a rhetorical divide came up in a number of recent discussions with parents and their children. In one conversation about the suicides, a mother at a Bay Area school in a similarly high-achieving community told me how little pressure she puts on her teens and noted by way of an anecdote how she had succeeded: Her daughter, she proudly recounted, was so well balanced that she decided last year not to go to the best college she got into but, rather, the school that best fit her passions. The school was Vassar.
In this subtle linguistic slip, Vassar qualified as a second-rate school.
Esther Wojcicki, the teacher who oversees the Palo Alto High School newspaper, lamented the competitive environment but noted seconds later that the school paper had just won a “Gold Crown” award from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and that the two dozen students sitting at computer terminals at 4 p.m. that day were thrilled to stay until 9 p.m. to put out the school magazine because they have so much fun doing it.
Alan Eagle, a sales director at Google whose 17-year-old son, William, is a junior at Gunn, was frank about the distance between what he tells his son and what he means.
“I can say all I want that it doesn’t matter where my son goes to college,” Mr. Eagle told me. But “I’m sure that as much as I preach that, I’m not being 100 percent authentic and frank.”
He added: “I personally went to Dartmouth and it did help. I look at the economy, the difference between haves and have-nots, and I believe a college education is critical.”
And a rich high school experience, too. A few minutes later, while acknowledging that his son had given up playing on the basketball team to study more, Mr. Eagle noted that “at least he’s still got track.”
Glenn McGee, the district’s superintendent, also seemed to struggle to walk the line between celebrating the exceptional nature of this area while urging students to relax. Sitting in his office and looking across the street at the Stanford campus, he mourned the fact that some parents feel that such a school is the only acceptable outcome.
“In many cases, people have made a big sacrifice to live in this community,” Dr. McGee said, referring to exorbitant housing costs (the median housing price last year was $3.3 million, making it the fourth most-expensive ZIP code in the country, according to Richard Florida, an academic who studies demographic trends). Characterizing the attitude of many parents, Dr. McGee said, “To be blunt, what is my return on investment?”
“My job is not to get you into Stanford,” he said he tells parents and students. “It’s to teach them to learn how to learn, to think, to work together — learn how to explore, collaborate, learn to be curious and creative.”
Some parents hear it, he said, but “a lot of families and parents don’t hear the message and say: compete and compete.”
Dr. McGee said he had interviewed 300 students and found that half would be “really embarrassed” to tell their friends they got a B. But the truth is that it’s awfully hard to be the best here, given the curve: The SAT scores are so high on average that a student who finishes in the 75th percentile in the district has a 2,200, the 99th percentile in general for college-bound seniors.
Soon after lamenting the pressure, Dr. McGee raved about a student who was part of a math team that finished first in January in a national competition, and about the new performing arts center under construction, and about the coming $24 million athletic facility funded by a private family foundation.
And why wouldn’t he rave? Why not be thrilled by achievement?
Because the bar for academic success here has become so high that solid performance can feel mediocre.
It puts enormous pressure on a school, or a community, when such consistent, across-the-board greatness becomes a baseline of sorts — what Mr. Eagle described as a culture of “not just excellence but uber-excellence.”
Perhaps that explains some of the doublespeak: Parents are searching for language to encourage their children, even push them, but not crush them.
One solution, said Ms. Pope of Stanford, is “downtime, playtime, family time.” For parents, too. In other words: Take a leap of faith (well supported by science) that downtime will lead to a healthier perspective.
Dr. Morton Silverman, a psychiatrist and senior science adviser to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suggested that another answer is recognizing that the doublespeak also betrays a sense of terror about the future among both students and parents.
With the economy in flux and the income gap growing, parents don’t see a clear path anymore to financial stability — even here, maybe especially here, where things move fast and competition is fierce. In addition, many of the fortunes made here have been based on creating things that destabilize traditional businesses and their workers.
So confront the new realities, Dr. Silverman suggested, urging parents to say something like: “I can’t tell you which path to take or how to get there, but I will support you,” he said. “I’m here to back you up.”
It’s a hard message to hear in a can-do place like this.
Walking near the train tracks where the children laid themselves down, Dr. McGee said this community, if any, should have answers.
“Can we put sensors up there?” he mused quietly to me, maybe to alert the train operators that someone has climbed onto the tracks. “This is Silicon Valley. There ought to be something we can do.”
Posted to: Education News Virginia Beach
Most years, Chris Freeman’s Advanced Placement Environmental Studies students design a hypothetical, sustainable house for a class project.
More recently, they’ve been designing a high school – theirs. That’s how plans for the rebuild of Kellam High came to include courtyards full of vegetable gardens and native swamp plants.
They’re just a few of the features that designers claim make this a school building unlike any other. Instead of separating English, math and other departments, the new Kellam will have six “learning communities” – wings that each house multiple subjects, designed to foster collaborative, interdisciplinary learning. Flexible, open spaces will abound alongside environmentally friendly, energy-efficient features. And at every step of the way, designers have included ideas from the teachers and students they say best know what a modern school needs.
“We wanted to design the building from the inside out, based on the goals of the educational program,” said Mike Ross, architect of the project with Virginia Beach-based firm HBA. “Rather than starting with the classroom, we started with the learner workstation. Basically, we reinvented what a classroom can and should be.”
Construction began in October at the site on West Neck Road, not far from the city’s Municipal Center. Original plans called for a spring 2014 move-in date, but workers ahead of schedule are now aiming earlier, possibly for not long after Christmas. Last year, Kellam served about 1,800 students, according to state data; the new facility can house 2,000.
The building will cost $70 million, and the total project – including land, furniture and technology – will cost $100 million. The price is in line with statewide averages over the past few years, Ross said.
Tony Arnold, director of facilities planning and construction for the division, said with inflation adjustments, it’s comparable to the last high school Virginia Beach bid out – Landstown High School in 1998, for $41 million. Over time, he said, features like geothermal heat and high windows that let in natural light will save money on utilities.
“It’s pretty impressive,” Arnold said. “Ten to 20 years ago, buildings this size were energy hogs. Now they use a lot less.”
From above, the building looks like a spaceship – round, with a central cafeteria-common space branching into elevated walkways that extend over three courtyards to the six learning communities.
Teachers helped come up with the design, Ross said. In line with the division’s strategic plan that pushes “21st-century skills,” they’re increasingly collaborating among departments and asking students to tackle projects and problems in small groups. That’s why Kellam’s classrooms will have removable walls to create large spaces, glass-enclosed rooms where students can work in small groups while remaining under supervision, and wider sections of hallways where they can spread out their work.
Apart from the learning communities, there’s an arts wing with band and practice rooms and an auditorium, and an athletic wing with three basketball courts and two auxiliary gyms. Outside, the first artificial-turf football field at any of Virginia Beach’s public schools is already installed.
The three courtyards Freeman’s students helped design dominate the layout. One is an edible garden full of planters for growing vegetables for possible use by culinary students; one will house an outdoor learning area with benches made from hardwood trees cut down to make way for the school; and one will filter rainwater runoff through native Virginia swamp plants.
“You want to talk about lifelong learning?” Freeman said. “Having students take part in something real and tangible – that really fostered a sense of creativity and passion that I haven’t seen in 10 years of teaching.”
That was the idea behind gathering ideas from the school community, Arnold said. In the 1960s, schools were built cheaply. They were meant to last 40 years. Nobody cared when they were torn down, he said, because no one had a real stake in how they were built.
Now schools are built to last 75 to 100 years, and they’re designed around the needs and interests of a community.
“The way we program and design buildings today, the amount of stakeholder and public input – it’s dramatically different,” Arnold said.
“I think Kellam is just going to be a great building.”
Flattening the School Walls, an article from “Education Week”
Principal Tom Horn, a self-described “hippie kid from Eugene,” has transformed a troubled alternative high school in Oregon—not to mention his teachers’ job descriptions—by introducing a radical project-based learning model.
In a sense, the garden project can be seen as a metaphor for the way Horn operates in every aspect of his job as a school leader. The 42-year-old principal is equal parts quixotic and practical. He thinks big—dashing off seemingly far-fetched ideas with tangled webs of text and arrows in his ever-present sketchbook. He then gets others excited about a project, convinces some experts to get involved, procures the resources—and watches the project bloom.
By many measures, Horn’s leadership style—and his emphasis on beyond-the-classroom learning—appears to be working. The attendance rate at the 100-student high school, formerly called Al Kennedy Alternative School but now referred to by students and staff as the Kennedy School of Sustainability, has jumped from 23 percent in the fall of 2006, when Horn took over, to a current rate of about 90 percent. The dropout rate is now at 12.5 percent, down from 20 percent in 2004-05. Test scores, though still below par, are on the rise. The once-stigmatized alternative school now has a 180-student waiting list. And for the first time ever, students from Kennedy are going to college.
A self-described “hippie kid from Eugene,” Ore., Horn claims that he never actually wanted to be a principal. In his mid-20’s, he gave up a nomadic existence of surfing and rock-climbing to head back to school. He then opted for a master’s degree simply to move himself up the teacher pay scale, and at age 30, became a special education teacher—a position he was happy to stay in. But several years later, persistent urging from Krista Parent, superintendent of Oregon’s 2,900-student South Lane School District, who’d heard of Horn’s reputation as an innovator, convinced him to apply for the principalship and, eventually, to take on the task of turning the ailing Kennedy around.
Parent, the 2007 National Superintendent of the Year, says she envisioned transforming Kennedy from an alternative school for students who had “blown out of the regular system” to an option for “kids who need more real-world relevant kinds of opportunities.” Under Horn and the teacher team he’s assembled, she notes, the school has “far exceeded our expectations and our vision—and more quickly than I thought it could be done.”