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Gunn High students still looking for change

Teens speak out on progress made and stalled on mental health

The Gunn High School campus in 2016. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Watch "Behind the Headlines" for a discussion on this issue.

Gunn High School alumna Chloe Sorensen got involved in mental health work in her freshman year, but even she didn't practice what she preached until she was a senior. Sorensen, who graduated in May, co-founded the campus' Student Wellness Committee, helped bring the Youth Empowerment Seminar program to Gunn, helped create the new position of student wellness commissioner for student government and advocated for the student body as Student Executive Council president. Though she knew how important wellness was, she often pushed aside her own mental health in favor of work.

"My days were packed with things, and I didn't feel it," she said. "I was adding more things and seeing how far I could take it."

Every day there was no room for error nor time to realize she was in distress.

"One thing would go off, and it was like Jenga," she added, referring to the game of stacking and balancing wooden blocks. "There was no time for crisis, and when there was a crisis, it just threw everything out the window."

She knew she needed a major lifestyle change. After a difficult junior year, she told herself she wasn't going to let college applications, school or anything get in the way of her wellness. Her senior year, she made space for herself, dropped some activities and spent more time with friends and family.

"I think people get that wellness is important because people are always talking about how important it is," she said. "But until you go through something or experience it firsthand, you just won't feel like you need to prioritize it."

Sorensen's experience is common at Gunn and illustrates a conundrum that students say is both perplexing and disheartening: In response to two teen suicide clusters since 2009, students and administrators alike have implemented initiatives to spread awareness of the importance of mental health and diminish teens' fears of asking for help. But three years out from the last cluster and about two months after a Gunn senior died by suicide, teens say that while openness about mental health has improved, a lingering problem remains rooted in a culture of academic striving and stress.

Amidst a cloud of high ambitions, high expectations, high stress and high aversion to vulnerability, many students put on a facade of having it all. They often give themselves no room for failure and feel they have to hide insecurities in order to measure up to their peers and the often unrealistic standards they themselves — and others — impose upon their lives.

As self-worth becomes inextricably intertwined with academic results and maintaining a successful facade becomes their norm, students said they find themselves less and less able to take steps to care for their mental health. And though the majority of people who die by suicide — 90 percent — have a diagnosable mental disorder, according to health care professionals, mental health and wellness are critical to helping prevent suicides.

While mental health experts, school administrators and parents are frequently interviewed about youth mental health, the voices of teenagers affected by changes and traumas are less often heard. To gather a more nuanced perspective on the campus culture at Gunn, the Weekly spoke to nine students and recent alums about their experiences with the many pressures that tug from deep within the school climate.

Reaching for the stars

Nestled in the epicenter of Silicon Valley, where famous startups like Facebook, Apple and Google are regularly developing cutting-edge technology and being lauded for transformative innovations, Gunn students grow up facing certain expectations, said senior Danny Howell, who was raised in Palo Alto after moving from Salt Lake City when he was 2 years old.

Many students feel as if the norm in Palo Alto is a very specific image of excellence — high grade-point average (GPA), strong standardized test scores, leadership in multiple extracurriculars, then attendance at a prestigious Ivy League college and, eventually, a six-figure income.

"It's part of the culture," Howell said. "It's not often something that's stated directly but more things that are just implied or people pick up as expectations or ways of going about things just because that's how everybody else does it and that seems like the way it should be, even if you haven't been told this."

Junior Meghna Singh moved to Palo Alto from Boston in the summer before fourth grade. Palo Alto's high-pressure environment, she said, was not present in Boston. People here are "super high-achieving," she said.

Silicon Valley's intense work culture, said senior and current school board representative Advait Arun, rubs off on the teenagers who live here.

"Everyone wants success, and that's not a bad thing, but people take the high-pressure environment and stay under pressure, stay stressed just to achieve success," he said.

According to senior Vidhu Navjeevan, because Gunn has a number of immigrant families who came to America seeking better opportunities and better lives, that mentality of striving is reinforced in students' minds.

"I definitely don't think it's coming from a malicious place," she said. "I think parents just want the best for their kids."

The "white picket fence American dream," said Gunn alumna Shannon Yang, is the only future Palo Alto children see growing up.

It's the "perfect life," but to have it, you have to "get a good job, live in Palo Alto, have a Palo Alto house, family, richness," said Yang, who graduated in May.

"Since this is such an affluent community, anything under a six-figure salary would entail downward mobility and a sudden reduction in the quality of life we've been used to growing up, which is scary," she said. "Most people's parents have had to work to get where they are, so it's probably more an expectation" that their children would be similarly upwardly mobile.

That upward mobility starts, in many students' minds, with college admission.

Navjeevan's parents, who are from India, were only aware of Ivy League schools, she said. When those are the only schools a parent knows, it's easier to assume that they're the best options for one's children, Navjeevan said.

Arun added that though not every Palo Alto student attends a top-ranked college, "going through middle and high school, all you hear about are the students with 4.0s who get into the Ivy Leagues and Stanford."

"Even if they're in the minority, they're the only ones you hear about," he said.

This one-track narrative only compounds pressures to get into the perfect college, senior Janet Wang said.

"I feel like it's hard for people to understand that (pressure) because it seems like everyone here is only getting into and only striving for schools that seem more prestigious to others," she said. "People who excel are really prevalent here, and everyone obviously wants to follow in their footsteps.

"And since we have a very prestigious university so close by — I don't think it adds a burden on to students, but sometimes it is a reminder of a reality that could be yours if you worked hard enough for it."

Standards for students are higher to begin with, Howell said. When they fall short, people may say it's OK, but the initial hard-to-reach expectation still persists.

"That's the guideline people are supposed to initially reach for," he added. "They really are supposed to reach for the stars."

Academic striving

Gunn has a reputation for academic rigor. In the 2017 U.S. News and World Report for best high schools, Gunn ranked No. 150 out of more than 20,000 eligible public high schools in the country, No. 19 in California and No. 8 in science, technology, engineering and mathematics nationally.

Because students see school as the central avenue to success, many push themselves to pursue unrealistic academic goals, from a schedule stacked with Advanced Placement courses to the perfect grade point average.

Often, parents intentionally or unintentionally contribute to the message that only a 4.0 GPA is acceptable, Howell said.

His parents have never told him that he needs to get all A's. They've said that B's are fine. However, if a quarterly progress report shows that one of Howell's grades is edging closer to a B, his parents will ask, "How come?"

"It sounds and feels like, 'Why is this not easily an A? This should be easy,'" Howell said. "So it's not something they say directly or even try to express in any way, but it's something that at least I have felt to some degree. And I'd be surprised if I was the only one that was like that at Gunn."

Parents aren't the only ones adding to this culture of high academic expectations, both Howell and Yang said.

"Parents and friends and peers subconsciously contribute to one's own self-perception that I need to be successful or I can't be judged in a bad way," Yang said, "but the largest factor is oneself."

In the school district's most recent Strategic Plan survey, which sampled 1,152 students from Gunn, 44.8 percent of those Gunn students reported a positive social and emotional experience that year compared to 57.4 percent at Palo Alto High School. Forty-one percent of Gunn students surveyed reported that they had received "positive" mental health counseling.

"It'd be a lie to say there's no stress on campus," said sophomore Hanna Suh, who is a member of student-government and believes high school should be spent discovering one's true passions. She said, however, that her stress comes from her own expectations for herself.

The increasingly competitive college-application process makes students anxious for the future, said Singh, and being surrounded by high-achieving peers makes it worse.

If everyone around you is constantly worrying about getting into a "good college," Yang said, it's hard not to get caught up in it as well.

She said her friend once told her, "Shannon, your anxiety is seeping off into me."

A lot of the pressures to keep up a certain image — of doing well, of having it all — are self-cultivated, Wang said. It's like a "subconscious competition" that can at times tip students over the edge, she said.

Since her freshman year, Wang, for her own well-being, has tried to remove herself from situations in which she would inadvertently compare herself to her peers, such as after class when students compare answers and test scores or discuss achievements.

"I feel like people who ask about other people's results don't want to feel lesser or that much superior than other people," she said. "I think it's a subconscious itch for constant relief — knowing that you're doing OK in comparison to others."

Comparing test scores, the number of Advanced Placement classes they're taking and even courses in general is common at Gunn, said senior Alvin Hom, particularly when registering for the next semester of school. During the rest of the year, however, he said academic competition isn't as big of an issue: "We're all just trying to succeed."

For Singh, conversations about summer plans also reveal students' competitiveness. In early April, whenever she asked her peers what they were doing during the summer, people would answer in vague terms.

"They would say, 'I'm just kind of doing this and that,' and I realized this — they're not telling me because they don't want me to know what they're doing ... and apply for the same internships," she said.

When students look to grades, test scores and appearance of success for validation, their self-esteem becomes tied to the external — and though it may be easy to reassure others that the external doesn't define who one is, what one believes in one's head may differ vastly from how one actually feels, Navjeevan said.

"On paper, when you're dealing with other people, it's much easier to say, 'Grades don't matter,'" Navjeevan said. "And you believe that until you have to apply it to yourself."

"I think it's because you hold yourself to a lot higher standards than you hold others," she added. "You know that getting bad grades isn't a big deal, and you know it because your friend is still this amazing person no matter what their GPA is, but when you start using GPA and letter grades to measure yourself, then it matters a lot more."

When you start priding yourself on getting A's and "being perfect," it becomes a problem, she said, "measuring yourself in these little things."

Impacts on mental health

After Palo Alto's second cluster of student suicides in the 2014-15 school year, Singh said there was a lot of talk at Gunn about self-care. Since then, however, it's "dwindled down."

"If a teacher is like, 'You should turn this in the day after the assignment date, and sleep instead,' in (a student's) head, it's 'No, I should get this done first,'" Singh said.

In their quest to achieve just as they think everyone else is achieving, students will often ignore their own signs of distress, Singh said.

If everyone else "seems fine — if they can do it — then I should be able to do it, too," she added. "They don't want to be different from the norm."

The pressure to do well makes asking for help all the harder, said Singh, and can compound mental health issues. Students say they don't want to burden others, and they worry about what their parents, friends and the community as a whole will think if they reveal that they're struggling.

(Read Singh's findings from her survey on Gunn and Palo Alto High School alumni that showed choice of college doesn't determine satisfaction in life).

In a 2016 community survey conducted by Project Safety Net, a local youth well-being collaborative, only 52 percent of current Palo Alto students agreed with the statement: "I would be comfortable telling a friend or family member if I felt I needed professional help for depression."

By contrast, 80.6 percent of current parents agreed with the statement.

On the other hand, 46.9 percent of students who responded agreed that "I would recognize if a friend or family member was thinking about killing themselves."

The survey collected responses from 1,582 self-identified Palo Alto residents, about a third of whom reported they were current students. The survey also found that 8.9 percent of youth ages 13 to 15 actually strongly agreed or agreed with the statement "Suicide is shameful, something to be hidden." (Another 18.1 of the surveyed students neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement.)

"There's this stigma that in order to need mental health help, you have to have a mental illness," Navjeevan said.

Wang agreed, adding that it's hard to "be vulnerable and accept that you need help." But, she added, knowing about mental health services — whether for oneself or a friend — can be helpful for everyone, especially since you never know when you might find yourself needing help.

Singh, Wang, Sorensen and Navjeevan all said they have accessed mental health services such as therapy or counseling.

For Singh, it wasn't until a friend said she'd been going to therapy for years that Singh decided to try it herself. Though she had hesitated for a long time due to concerns about what it would be like or whether it would help, hearing her friend say that therapy had made all the difference convinced Singh that she needed to practice what she preached to others.

After hitting a rough patch last year, she began therapy and has been open with her friends and classmates about her experience. If they ask her to hang out and she has an appointment, she responds honestly that she's going to therapy. Now that she's experienced its positive impacts, she also actively encourages her friends to attend therapy.

The next generation

Coming into Gunn, Suh was apprehensive, in part because of the school's academic reputation. Once there, however, she found unexpected sources of support.

"It was academic, and it was hard, but — much more than I thought so — there were more people who supported me and were willing to help me out, especially upperclassmen and teachers," she said.

In every class she attended in her first week, teachers openly discussed mental health. The school's various wellness initiatives — Titan Connect, the Youth Empowerment Seminar program, the wellness center — sent the message that Gunn cares.

Suh's P.E. teacher in particular provided guidance on how to access counseling services and made it a point to talk to her classes about mental health.

"She was always telling us how she's open to talking to anyone," Suh said.

Gunn's new block schedule and use of "flex" time and tutorial period alleviated much of her stress, she said. ("Flex" time is a mandatory free period during which students can get academic help from teachers or study on campus.)

She and her peers have also found Gunn's new wellness center a welcoming place to relax. Students are allowed to go to the wellness center during class if they're feeling distressed; coloring books, tea and mental health staff are on call for anyone who visits.

"It's a safe space for people to go to," Singh said.

In middle school, Suh didn't know much about mental health, but at Gunn, she found herself having conversations about it with a variety of students and teachers.

"At least for my friend group, we're very supportive, and mental health isn't really a taboo subject," she said. "But I also think Gunn and the upperclassmen have a lot of influence on that — being open about it."

She acknowledged that though school programs launched to address student well-being are well-intentioned, they're not always executed well. But even small things, she said, like "Random Acts of Kindness Day" and encouraging chalk art messages displayed around campus, have a positive impact on students.

The majority of students interviewed for this article felt that mental health awareness had increased on campus and that people were more considerate when talking about mental illness or emotional challenges.

All students described the opening of Gunn's wellness center as a significant improvement. Students feel more comfortable talking about mental health with its addition, Singh said.

And it contributes to the message that school is not just school, Sorensen said.

"School is not just your classes and doing well and contests," she said. "They want school to be more than that — a community."

That's not to say mental health stigma has been erased completely, Navjeevan said. She still sees stigma in many everyday interactions, such as the way people use certain words.

"Like when you see the word 'triggered' all over Instagram ... or someone says, 'Oh, she's so bipolar,' but really she's just angry at you," she said. "To see it made fun of is very hurtful."

Though stigma still exists, Navjeevan said, teachers and students are more slowly bringing about change through dialogue and action.

Her Spanish class, for example, often required impromptu presentations. For Navjeevan, who has generalized anxiety disorder, this was a huge source of stress. Though she "dealt with it" her first month of sophomore year, her teacher told students to talk to her if they ever needed anything, and she did, explaining that she'd feel more comfortable having more time to prepare.

Navjeevan's teacher complied immediately and responded, "You don't even have to present in front of other people; you can come in during after school or lunch or whenever works."

Hom said he believes the best way to effect change in this area is through personal stories and experiences, such as student newspaper The Oracle's "Changing the Narrative" series, launched in 2015. In the series, students and staff write personal columns on overcoming obstacles such as mental illness, low self-esteem and need for perfection.

Hom said as this year's student body president he plans to create other initiatives to combat academic competition and stigma.

Early this August, the Gunn community was left coping with another tragedy when a senior died by suicide. Now, Suh said, many students are afraid other peers will harm themselves.

In response, teachers have actively shown emotional vulnerability with students and provided safe environments for students to process what they feel, Suh said.

The recent suicide, Singh said, means the community needs to be all the more committed to mental health efforts in Palo Alto.

This year, students are hopeful that the implementation of a new social-emotional learning curriculum, the Social Emotional Literacy and Functionality (SELF) program, will continue the progress in mental health awareness. SELF, which Gunn and Paly are piloting this year, uses interactive lessons and activities to teach students how to support each other, develop self-awareness, build relationships, resolve conflicts and prepare for college and the workforce.

Once the social-emotional learning curriculum is implemented district-wide, students from kindergarten through high school will be developing their wellness and coping skills, said Navjeevan, who was involved in bringing the curriculum to the district and serves this year as student wellness commissioner alongside Singh.

"You start the learning when you're 6, and it'll become much more of a lifetime learning," Navjeevan said.

As administrators and staff transition into new positions and initiatives at Gunn, Howell said the student body also hopes any future changes will be transparent and incorporate students' voices.

"It's not hopeless," he said. Long-term change is "just going to take time and a lot of effort and a lot of just trying to normalize everything."

Howell pointed to the culture of drugs and tobacco as an example of change in cultural awareness. When hippie culture was more mainstream, tobacco, cigarettes and smoking used to be cool. After people realized it causes cancer and was unhealthy, the mindset of the country changed, he said, and laws were put in place.

"It took a very long time for (the culture surrounding) tobacco to change, just like it took a very long time for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to become a diagnosis ... but it is possible," he said.

"Mental illnesses are not uncommon at all, really — it's something almost everyone will encounter in their life," he added. "You have your physical health and your mental health, and you should be trying to maintain both, ideally."

The movement will depend on students who care, said Sorensen — those who continually speak up and say, "This is something that's an important part of our lives."

"You come into Gunn knowing this was a part of our school's history, and I don't think people will forget that," she said. "I think people are aware of the pain from the past, and I think people understand the importance of this kind of work in preventing it."

Shawna Chen is a former editorial intern and Gunn High School graduate. She can be reached at


Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 1-855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454.

People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Additional resources can be found here.


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

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22 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 6, 2017 at 12:34 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Has anything been done to reduce cheating, or to coordinate amongst teachers when major projects are due to reduce multiple deadlines at the same time? These issues come up time and again in surveys of what causes stress. I think more should be done to reduce the causes of stress rather than just teach how to "manage stress" although that too is important.

11 people like this
Posted by Sarah1000
a resident of Los Altos
on Oct 6, 2017 at 12:54 pm

Thank you, Shawna, for this informative article. As a parent who grew up in downtown Phoenix and moved here just before raising children, I'll admit to "stepping on the treadmill" in my desire to ensure that my children had opportunities that I did not. I thought that these opportunities would make their life easier. It was only when one developed physical health issues and the other developed mental health issues that I learned (partially through seeing a therapist myself) how to back off and let them learn their own life lessons. I am proud to say that they, at 20 and 23, both work part-time and go to school. The 23 yr old lives on her own and the 20 yr old is polite and responsible. They may not make six figures but we are all much, much happier than before. You can step off the treadmill anytime. The ground you step on to is solid.

14 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 6, 2017 at 1:20 pm

Thank you for speaking up. I think when the students themselves start pushing back, there is a chance for real
change. It is a brave thing to do. Thank you

10 people like this
Posted by Triggered Dad
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 6, 2017 at 3:05 pm

If Gunn keeps adding stuff like SELF, extra mandatory Flex Time, and other activities in the name of "reducing stress," then how is Gunn supposed to keep up its "reputation" for being an academically strong high school? I think the students just need to step up; the administrators have done enough to reduce stress. It has come to the point where my child is not learning anything at Gunn anymore, since there is barely anything taught at that academically lacking high school.

36 people like this
Posted by Anonymous Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 6, 2017 at 3:28 pm

Kids are sick of SELF and the topical hypocrisy behind it.

16 people like this
Posted by Educate smarter not harder
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 7, 2017 at 8:35 am

@Triggered Dad,
You bring up a good point in how we respond to addressing stress. Surveys of the students find that they are simultaneously bored and stressed. School comes with a lot of stressful overhead that doesn't necessarily improve education.

For example, the environmental science AP instructor was reported as figuring out how to give little to no homework, yet the students do just as well on the AP test. In math, why do we go to the trouble of evaluating students by giving them a grade, then have everyone move on? As Sal Khan points out, what if we built houses that way? Inspected them then just move on to building the walls regardless of the condition of the foundation? The system places stressful and unhelpful expectations on students through unnecessary overhead. What if math were individual, self-paced, and every missed test or problem could be made up by learning what one missed? For one thing, the grades would stop being stressful and start being helpful, and students could actually be taught to value learning from their mistakes. Stanford researcher Daphne Kohler says (from research that) you can actually eliminate the curve that way, giving every child the education they deserve. Less stress, better education, less time consuming. We can do a lot in that regard here. The choice is NOT great stressful education vs, lower stress bad education, unless we make it so.

I think it's also super important for us to develop a whole curriculum with that approach, because students here are very driven, and burnout a real threat not only to their future college careers, but to their future lives. Researchers are finding that the exercise of willpower over time is finite, that we run the well dry. If we can offer the students a better education without requiring them to run the well dry, shouldn't we? Still making this a choice between quality of life and quality of education is a false choice. Forcing kids to waste their time being bored is also stressful.

9 people like this
Posted by Old Timer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 7, 2017 at 10:26 am

@smarter not harder, yes there are a lot a teaching fads out there, and each has some "research" behind it,similar to diet fads. Personally I am happy to have the teachers and instructional leaders sort it out, they are fad prone as well but at least have to deal with the results. Parents in my experience should stick to parenting, which is a hard enough job by itself.

8 people like this
Posted by Kudos to Navjeevan's Spanish teacher!!
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 7, 2017 at 11:40 am

Kudos to Navjeevan's Spanish teacher!! is a registered user.

I loved hearing that Navjeevan's Spanish teacher was willing to let her give presentations just to her. My now college age daughter had a teacher in 4th grade that randomly called kids out to demonstrate their knowledge in class. For an already anxious child, it was torture for her to be in class every day. The teacher's response to her anxiety was to tell the other students in the class that my daughter was a crybaby. At nine years old. Thankfully, the teacher is long gone.

12 people like this
Posted by Educate smarter not harder
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 7, 2017 at 3:42 pm

@Old Timer,
You have missed my point. I am pointing out that we do not have to pigeonhole our children's education into a binary choice between quality of education and quality of life. That has always been a false choice. I'm not talking about teaching "fads", I'm not sure why you would lead with such an inapplicable insult when so much is at stake. Our students can have a great education without so much stress. I gave but one example already in the district, of a teacher who has found the homework to be unnecessary to good performance, in fact he found that students did better. Esther Wojkicki was recently on the cover of one of the local papers; she too talks about how better results and more autonomy are synergistic not mutually exclusive, and her longstanding program is not exactly a fad either. (Since you bring up "fads" - The research upon which homework is assigned at all in school is prone to fads as well, and the researcher most often cited by people in this district to justify homework has backtracked on his own work.) The way we do things here is not the only way nor even the best way, given how access to knowledge, technology, and needs in the workforce have changed, and given how motivated a student population we have here.

As has been pointed out here before, Nobel Prize winner Pierre Curie's mother pulled him out of school and basically homeschooled him because he was a terrible student, according to her, a dreamer. He needed an individualized education, rather than the then "fad" of the Prussian model of education which we use today, and was newer in Curie's day than his experience is to us today; it is in practice only 150 years old. In Curie's time, they did not have technological tools allowing them to individualize everyone's education in school, so he was better off leaving school, but we do today. There is nothing fadish about solving problems, revisiting wrong assumptions, changing with changing conditions, or saving lives.

You may feel happy ceding to others all responsibility for all the important aspects of your life, to be an obedient patient who doesn't take any responsibility for your own health, for example, but parents who are paying for an education that is burdensome and hurting their children emotionally without much of an up side have a right to ask for better, especially when it is not the only way. One friend recently complained that he couldn't see that what their high schooler was getting out if school here was remotely worth the overhead. The complaints of friends in industry about how helpless students out of school are to work autonomously, especially the "best" students, is practically becoming a drumbeat. Ours is not the only (established, non-fadish) educational experience or model people here have experience with. If we have a choice to provide a better, more individualized education for less stress, why wouldn't we choose it? Why continue to insist that kids either be stressed or wash out?

Our district vision is to help each child reach his or her creative potential. We can in fact do that, without a false choice of good education/lots of stress or inferior education/ less stress.

6 people like this
Posted by Old Timer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 7, 2017 at 5:15 pm

@smarter, not harder - [Portion removed.]

I am ok with "ceding" educational responsibility to the, umm, educators. I definitely do not want to "cede" it to well-meaning but ill-equipped parents who champion their own ideas, based on their extremely limited experience and impressions of what would work better. [Portion removed.]

24 people like this
Posted by DES
a resident of Southgate
on Oct 7, 2017 at 6:31 pm

It was a great article, but I think that no one has benchmarked Gunn against other schools with similarly high SAT's but whose suicide rates ARE NOT 5 times the national average for that age group. My daughter attended one of the best and toughest prep schools in the nation, in a community whose house hold income matched Palo Alto's, and in the history of that school there had never been a suicide.

Clearly a major source of the problem is the parents. First, the kids seem to believe that if they get into an Ivy League they will have a wonderful life and live happily ever after. Not true -- just check with some of the Ivy League folks you know. Secondly, everybody seems to assume that admission into the Ivy League is a meritocracy. It's not. If Harvard for example sees their purpose as having maximum impact on the world then that will drive their admissions by letting in people from around the world most likely to shape the future. And it also means that Stanford for example might decide that they don't need any more people from Gunn no matter how good they are. Finally if a school has 10 fully qualified applicants from around the world for every opening, then guess what, your odds are only 10% no matter how good you are.

If our job is to help our children to understand the world, then these are a few of the things these kids need to know. That an Ivy League education will not guarantee success, personal fulfillment or happiness. That "the system" is not a meritocracy and life is not fair. And that if you know you did your best you should be satisfied with that, and if you do get into the Ivy League you really didn't deserve it, you should just feel grateful and lucky.

4 people like this
Posted by Educate smarter not harder
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 7, 2017 at 7:56 pm

@Okd Timer,
I'm sorry, most of your post was deleted by moderators, so I can only answer what is there. The examples I gave were of longtime Palo Alto educators who found ways to provide better education without the stress. [Portion removed.] We don't have to choose between lowering stress and offering a better, not worse, educational experience. If the education people you know cannot see that, as their colleagues have, maybe they are in the wrong field, or at least part of the problem since we are not in one-room schoolhouses [portion removed.]

No, there is no clearly here when you blame parents for everything. I see families in surrounding districts as much more of everything people blame Palo Alto parents for, if anything, Palo Alto parents are on the more grounded side. You only say that because you can't think of any other reason, yet our district has for many years aggressively rejected dealing with any potential factors they didn't want to deal with. Factors that unlike the broad brush you are using against parents, are actually starkly different in the surrounding districts compared to Palo Alto. The parents aren't different than the surrounding districts without suicides, and they aren't different than before 2008. Parents are falling all over themselves to do what they are told, and it hasn't helped. Continuing to flagellate them is only bad for families, not supportive. The mental health problems in this district's kids have nothing at all to do with the Harvard admissions office. We can do a lot to reduce stress while also improving education. Such kids would have better chances at Harvard, by the way, although the vast majority in PAUSD don't even apply, so I'm not sure how you can blame them.

9 people like this
Posted by Gunn grad/years ago
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 7, 2017 at 8:54 pm

Mention made in article of how students often compare grades, SAT scores, etc. This info is bragged about and over-shared much more in our current times of vanity and self-promotion. Social media and general overuse of cell phones is harming society and teens should be encouraged to be authentic and consider others' feelings.

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Posted by Old Timer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 7, 2017 at 9:04 pm

[Post removed.]

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Posted by Discrimination = Stress
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 7, 2017 at 9:16 pm

One factor in school stress that people don't talk about enough - the pervasive discrimination in competitive colleges against Asian students in general and Chinese students in particular, usually in the name of "diversity." Which is just code for "there are too many of them!"

Asian families who come to places like Palo Alto specifically because they believe the education is better, and that education is the key to their children's future, are unfortunately rational in pursuing ever bit of extra edge and pushing their children to the limit. Otherwise, they risk missing the cut-off for "students with Asian surnames" or whatever category college admissions offices use.

One doesn't have to look any further than the Harvard admissions history for this, which has held it's percentage of Asian admits constant even as the qualified applicant pool as grown. As Harvard Law profession Alan Dershowitz put it, "“The idea of discriminating against Asians in order to make room for other minorities doesn’t seem right as a matter of principle."

The impact of that discrimination is felt, in part, at places like Gunn, where many qualified students must scramble for the limited number of spots available for "people like them." Now that's stressful.

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Posted by AP
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2017 at 11:14 pm

Wasn't Chloe Sorensen the Gunn student who made a big issue (including getting her opinion published in the Weekly) complaining that the board and others were trying to limit the number of AP classes she could take. [Portion removed.]

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Posted by Truthful
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 8, 2017 at 8:58 am

The truth is, there is no ONE answer to all of this. It's a combination of us parents, the Community, the Teachers, and THE KIDS. I don't have a solution, rather I can only provide a few of my observations:

Observation 1: if we think this begins in High School, think again.
I think all of this stuff starts in Elementary and more specifically Middle School. As soon as a child get's "laned" in Middle School, it's like the "haves" and the "have nots".
Observation 2: There is definite pressure is at the peer level. As a youngster, it's absolutely reasonable that you would compare yourself to your peers. From every standpoint. My son is in elementary School and he complains that we don't have a two story house, because his friend has a two story house. This is real, and it probably starts in middle school when kids start to get "laned". The fact that we even call in "lanes" is crazy!
Observation 3: I still try to compare my high school experience (30+ years ago) to the experience now, and I can't even relate. there is no comparison. the only thing I can point to is that the culture in Palo Alto is so unlike another place I know or am familiar with (I speak to folks in other school districts and it's nothing like this).
Conclusion: I don't have one. I just know that all of us need to start to change the culture. Teach out kids empathy around performance. Understand our kids so we know when they are burning the candle at both ends, enforce that we expect them to do their best, not the best according to some standard whether real or unreal. Support their social and emotional development - ie. have them be more social!!
Now, This is my conclusion based on my observations. You may have other observations or may not agree with mine....which is fine. But we must have the dialogue and share and be respectful of one another. And, our kids need to see that respect.

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Posted by Community
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 8, 2017 at 9:08 am

Ask any of this cohort in the article if any one of them would even consider going to San Jose State and why. There's your answer. And that's how it is ALWAYS been. You give out what you learn from home.

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Posted by Student at Gunn
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 8, 2017 at 9:40 am

SELF at Gunn is a joke. The research it is based upon is only supposed to help disadvantaged students who are likely drop out, or who would need emotional support. Apparently all of Gunn's freshmen face this treatment (for all four years of high school), regardless of academic situation. A one size fits all pill for a multi-faceted situation.

Recently we had a lesson on building rapport with teachers. Ironic, especially when SELF occupies flex, where students can specifically connect to teachers for help with homework, or difficult concepts explored during class.

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Posted by AP
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 8, 2017 at 1:34 pm

Trying to change the school culture, starting at elementary, is too late for Palo Alto because of the changed demographics.

As mentioned, the rat race starts at the elementary level, where there is no peer pressure or teacher pressure. [Portion removed.]

Gunn is a public school, not a private college prep school.

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Posted by Educate marter not harder
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 8, 2017 at 9:18 pm

You make many good points. [Portion removed.]

My kid never had those kinds of envy experiencesin our local schools, although, if someone tells me their husband gave them a Tesla for their birthday, as has happened, I am happy for them and think that's cool even though I could never afford that. My kid has never complained about our old cars, which are perfectly good. We have plenty of friends with better and worse. Having a diversity of experiences can help, although I suspect your child was reacting more from having been treated badly by someone than peer pressure. That's an old story and not unique to our district.

I just want people to understand that this way is not the only way. Our experience with district math was a disaster, and ours was one of those kids who was/would have been told to dumb it down to reduce stress. Instead, we left and sought a more independent path and same child is doing advanced college level math in the middle of high school and has had to significantly accelerate to do that since school had let things languish. This purely from interest, better more advanced work with far, far, far less stress. The school program is set up to weed people, not help everyone reach their creative potential, as the district vision aspires to do. That is stressful, and sets kids up to compare themselves to each other and to hide rather than learn from failures and mistakes. We can choose to make the program more about learning than about a treadmill of scores.

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Posted by Gunn Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 9, 2017 at 12:27 pm


There are many good universities in US and many ways to lead sucesss. If these families only focus on these elite schools, of course, they will feel very stressful. It is time to change your mindset.

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Posted by Good plan
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 9, 2017 at 1:09 pm

Ok so we should just tell all minorities that there are so many good schools that it's not worth the bother to fix discrimination, so the white elite can have the Ivies and the rest of us can have those other schools? That's your plan?

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Posted by Dear Adults...
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 9, 2017 at 3:25 pm

Dear Adults... is a registered user.

Dear Adults,

What I liked about the article is that it focused on the students' perspective. They were articulate and thoughtful in their comments. Hush. Listen to them. Be thoughtfully responsive to their needs.

Your anxiety in this thread is making me anxious. You seem so fearful about their future. Perhaps your fear is the problem?

I have spent a lot of time with Gunn kids as a volunteer in school. They are bright, generous, loving, hard-working, often hopeful. They make mistakes like the rest of us. However, as a group they are impressive young people. (So you have been doing something RIGHT. Take heart in that.) They have many gifts--not all of which are advantageous in a competitive academic environment. Know your child as fully as you can, and love him or her for what s/he is. That may require accepting some grades that are not A's.

Finally, to the cheater comments, the vast majority of our students are NOT cheaters. Knock it off. They don't deserve to be defamed in that way.

Love, support and encourage our kids. They can and will do the rest.

--A former PAUSD Mom

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Posted by Happy Gunn parent
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Oct 9, 2017 at 3:34 pm

Sorry @Good Plan, but no one said anything about discrimination. What the commenter was alluding to was the pervasive mentality in this town by parents who instill in their kids from early on that they need to be an entrepreneur, lawyer, doctor, etc., and go to a top college to be successful. That is SIMPLY NOT TRUE as success can be defined in many forms and not all of which involves financial success and name dropping prestige. Gunn is a wonderful school with many offerings for many types of kids. The parent community needs to embrace the difference and encourage their children to discover their passions rather than push for a stressful college admission (coming from me who is very successful by Silicon Valley standards but went to a state school in the midwest which Gunn parents would think of as a failure). Also, NO ONE should encourage your child to think that the peak is to be accepted to an Ivy or other such school. If you peak in high school, it's downhill from there.

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Posted by Good plan
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 9, 2017 at 4:12 pm

@happy, yes, @discrimination=stress referred to discrimination, which @=stress referred to. Perhaps you missed it earlier. It is easier for those with advantages to say "everything will be fine." For those who face discrimination, maybe less so.

21 people like this
Posted by Gunn Freshman
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 9, 2017 at 4:41 pm

Hi, I'm a Freshman at Gunn, just want to weigh in here about SELF and the like...

If you folks don't know, starting with the class of 2021, they plan to make us take mandatory SELF for all four years. This year, the pilot year, only freshman have SELF. Next year, freshmen and sophomore will have SELF. The year after that, freshman, sophomore, and junior, and so on.

Another thing you might not know is that they replaced the weekly 'Tutorial' period, where you could get homework help from teachers and work on class, by the new SELF period in the morning. (sophmore, junior, senior still have a shorter work/study period called FlexTime)

The general consensus among my peers is that SELF is a bureaucratic nightmare. They punish you if you are caught studying or doing work, and time force you to watch 'social skills' videos. The videos are totally dry, sterile, textbook descriptions of social interactions, and are often really unnecessary (e.g. 'ways to say hello', 'handshakes', 'listening to teachers').

SELF is so disliked that quite a few petitions have been going around to end it, the most notable one having almost 200 signatures.

Sorry for this rant, just wanted to express my dislike of this whole SELF thing.

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Posted by a Gunn student
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 9, 2017 at 8:34 pm

High school is about the kids, isn't it? Student voice MUST be heard at Gunn. It is the only way the administration will be able to implement services and policies students find helpful. At the moment, the students have little say in what efforts are made to help them, and the formulation of those efforts. This is backwards.

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Posted by Ugh not her again
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 10, 2017 at 9:26 am

[Post removed.]

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Posted by Listen to the Students
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 10, 2017 at 11:09 am

Listen to the Students is a registered user.

Please listen to the students. They are in the classroom every day. Generally speaking, I think they have a pretty good finger on the problems and opportunities for change.

The students don't like SELF for the reasons stated by a student in the above thread. I hear they would prefer longer lead times for homework and test prep planning. They don't like last minute assignments that induce stress because many students are busy with jobs, sports, and activities that make a balanced life. They, like grown-ups, want to plan their time and they need homework and tests to be assigned in a way that enables them to make choices and plan their time. That seems pretty reasonable.

It seems to me we urgently need a better system for identifying kids with depression and expeditiously connecting those students with the professional help they need. This is a NATIONAL problem, not unique to Palo Alto.

Test stacking and last minute, lengthy, last minute homework assignments are still a problem. My last kid graduated last year. She was a VERY capable student and a good planner, but her homework load was unpredictable day-to-day, and that made it difficult to plan her life. Teachers, can you work with each other and students to identify a shared solution to this very real problem? Could assignments be organized differently?

Parents, high school is NOT college. Kids do NOT need a ton of AP classes to get into a well-ranked college (note that I did not say Ivy League--where undergrad education isn't so special anyway). Taking a few APs in areas of particular interest is a good way for kids to dive deep and test themselves--but this should be self-motivated, not a forced march. There are hundreds of well-ranked, excellent colleges that will accept well-rounded above-average students. Our kids take their cues from us. Model good personal planning and balanced living. Take time to express love and enjoy time as a family--because your beloved son or daughter will soon be leaving home. Enjoy this time with them!

If Johnny swims AND plays soccer AND participates in orchestra AND five APs, will he still have time for family dinners and down time with friends? High school is a time when students are exploring options for their adult self--not just academic, but new relationships, new friendships, new religious and philosophical ideas--that are not just academic. Their developing brains and bodies need time to work through adolescent issues--first relationships, first break-ups, awakening philosophical, religious, sexual, political thoughts and feelings. This REQUIRES down time. Make sure they get some. And LOVE them, LOVE them, LOVE them unconditionally.

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Posted by BP
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 11, 2017 at 12:17 am

To: Listen to the Students

I'm afraid that what you are advocating for is no longer possible at Gunn since I believe a majority of the parents want the excessive competition. Only way to know for sure is to have a blinded survey of all parents to know what kind of school they want Gunn to be.

Most of the kids cannot stand up to their demanding parents and say no more, especially when you have been raised to be obedient, follow orders and not question authority. The students are just mimicking what they hear at home. They might grumble to their friends, but they won't push back on their parents.

Also, PAUSD administration wants the "private school" prestige, since easier to justify their salaries when Gunn and Paly are always being nationally ranked. It is truly ironic, since the schools rankings are really being driven by the students and their parents forcing them to do all the outside of classroom tutoring, course work, and SAT drilling starting in 9th grade.

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Posted by Gunn parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 11, 2017 at 12:27 am

[Post removed.]

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Posted by Parent of '17 Grad
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 11, 2017 at 1:53 am

Agree with "Listen" and BP. But BP, some students are studying for the SATs in middle school! Actually, a good goal is to complete it by the beginning of Junior year so they can work on their grades in Junior year instead of having to study for the exam too.

Yes, PAUSD is a PUBLIC SCHOOL and they should teach to all levels of intellect. Just because it's an intelligent community, doesn't justify an insane workload. My children had to have tutors in regular lane math and science classes because of the rigor or poor teaching. If your child has a few bad teachers, it's a stressful and anxiety-filled year for the student and for engaged parents who have to witness their child's emotions. There are some good teachers at Paly who understand the student stress and are good teachers too. They offset stress by offering extra credit, redo's, flexible deadlines, homework passes, grading where homework and test grades are equally calculated. But there are bad ones where incompetence and disorganization are prevalent: lack of structure, ambiguous teaching, incorrect review sheets, short deadlines, refusing to stay after school to help, posting "Quiz tomorrow" on Schoology at 9:00PM the night before, etc. My children said their professors are so much more organized and precise.

Here's the Paly college map. You can see that there is only a small portion (of a class of 500) who attend elite universities: Web Link And I can tell you that most of them were stressed-out (if not accepted for athletics), some even cheated. One got caught cheating. One offered to pay my child for their review sheet because he had too much homework in other classes. Two females attending Stanford this year have already withdrawn.

Parents, it's important to find the right college fit for your child; don't just chase the reputations. Your child only has one chance at undergraduate education so make it the right school! There are different subcultures within America and if your child doesn't feel comfortable on campus, it's not the right place for them. They need time to grow up and find themselves before they step into the working world. God knows they have no time for social life at PAUSD!

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 11, 2017 at 7:31 am

"Your child only has one chance at undergraduate education so make it the right school!" Right, no pressure there. This is the problem Palo Alto kids face - over involved helicopter parents, well-intentioned, but determined to make things perfect for their snowflake. It takes many forms. Your kids will be who they will be. Relax. Or not. It's up to you.

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Posted by Parent of '17 Grad
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 11, 2017 at 9:56 am

@Resident: You are misinterpreting. It sounds as if you think a teenager has the knowledge of a middle-aged adult and that's faulty thinking. I am saying that the child should choose the university, not the parent. Parents who choose the schools for their children due to the reputations are at fault. They are using their children for bragging rights and disregarding the feelings of the child. I heard a student saying he wanted to go to MIT but his parents forced him to go to CalTech. Likewise, children with complacent parents are at a disadvantage; I've seen students flounder because the parents didn't advise them or take them to visit colleges so they wasted time versus if the parents had shared knowledge with them (maybe the parents had no knowledge). Parents should have input but not make the decision for the child. It's much easier for a child from a close family to succeed. Children who have complacent parents are at a disadvantage. Each generation is supposed to help the next (that's how the rich stay rich), not each start from the beginning again. It's not black/white, there is a grey zone. Even the plumber told me that he hears parents bragging about their child attending an elite school, then the next year, the child is back, living at home because it wasn't a good fit. And as I mentioned, two Paly freshman already withdrew from Stanford because it was a bad fit for them.

As Malcolm Gladwell states in "Outliers", it's the top students at each college who will succeed, not the average student who attends the elite school.

5 people like this
Posted by DES
a resident of Southgate
on Oct 11, 2017 at 10:02 am

Palo Alto parents, those who are successful and those Type A types who are striving to be successful, need to remember the principle of reversion to the mean. If you and your spouse are both EXCEPTIONAL, your children, far from being exceptional like their parents, are more likely to be not exceptional. This is in fact the most likely outcome. The average IQ, even among the children of Palo Alto, is probably 100. We as a community need to create a space where normal children can feel good about themselves.

Furthermore, as a Type A person I would offer the observation that Type A people are not necessarily so by choice, nor are they necessarily the most wonderful people to be around, and as parents they need to protect their children from their own perhaps insatiable desire for achievement and success.

One of the most important roles for high school is students to get to know THEMSELVES. A few years ago I was asked to interview applicants to Harvard -- a fascinating experience for sure. I quickly realized that all of the applicants were smarter than I was and perhaps able to outsmart me in the interview. But as I probed to discern "who they were" I realized that most of them had no idea who they were, where they were headed, or what they wanted to do with their lives. Most were primarily shaped by a desire to fulfill the aspirations of their parents and their community. I was left to wonder what Harvard or any elite school was actually looking for among such a pool or applicants and whether they even knew what they were looking for either. That was the last year I interviewed for Harvard.

When I reflect upon the exceptional people in my life they were not the high achievers! They were the rare individuals with exceptional character -- compassion, forthrightness, trustfulness, integrity, generosity, compassion, compassion, compassion. Perhaps these are the qualities that Gunn and the community should emphasize in high school and throughout.

“Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve…. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Martin Luther King

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Posted by DES
a resident of Southgate
on Oct 11, 2017 at 11:09 am

Palo Alto parents, those who are successful and those Type A types who are striving to be successful, need to remember the principle of reversion to the mean. If you and your spouse are both EXCEPTIONAL, your children, far from being exceptional like their parents, are more likely to be not exceptional. This is in fact the most likely outcome. The average IQ, even among the children of Palo Alto, is probably 100. We as a community need to create a space where normal children can feel good about themselves.

Furthermore, as a Type A person I would offer the observation that Type A people are not necessarily so by choice, nor are they necessarily the most wonderful people to be around, and as parents they need to protect their children from their own perhaps insatiable desire for achievement and success.

One of the most important roles for high school is students to get to know THEMSELVES. A few years ago I was asked to interview applicants to Harvard -- a fascinating experience for sure. I quickly realized that all of the applicants were smarter than I was and perhaps able to outsmart me in the interview. But as I probed to discern "who they were" I realized that most of them had no idea who they were, where they were headed, or what they wanted to do with their lives. Most were primarily shaped by a desire to fulfill the aspirations of their parents and their community. I was left to wonder what Harvard or any elite school was actually looking for among such a pool or applicants and whether they even knew what they were looking for either. That was the last year I interviewed for Harvard.

When I reflect upon the exceptional people in my life they were not the high achievers! They were the rare individuals with exceptional character -- compassion, forthrightness, trustfulness, integrity, generosity, compassion, compassion, compassion. Perhaps these are the qualities that Gunn and the community should emphasize in high school and throughout.

“Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve…. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Martin Luther King

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 11, 2017 at 11:28 am

@Parent of 17 grad - I think you are just not self-aware. You share the goal of "my child should be outstanding!" (even quoting a book called "Outliers," yuck); you just differ as to the means. Your kids feel that pressure - "we moved to Palo Alto for you, darling!" - yes, they live with that.

I'm not saying I'm a paragon of virtue in this regard - I live here too - but I don't make a practice of telling other parents they are doing it wrong and let me tell you how. They can do what they want, so can you. But I would argue it isn't the grind of doing extra problem sets that makes kids anxious and unhappy - it is the unrelenting pressure to be "happy" and "successful" and "fulfilled" - instead of just being.

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Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 11, 2017 at 4:26 pm

Resident, you are in a time warp and the hypocrisy is laughable. I’m guessing you bought your house for less than $80,000 and your children were able to pay off their college loans and buy houses. They had little homework at Cubberley and a lot of free time, no worries. Yes, I get it because I grew up here too. Raising children in Palo Alto is different now, as stated in the posts above. You might enjoy the subculture of simply existing which is common elsewhere in the nation, not here in Palo Alto.

3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 11, 2017 at 5:02 pm

Umm, I moved here about 10 years ago, paid through the nose, and have one in college and one in high school. So no, I'm living the dream here like everybody else.

13 people like this
Posted by steve
a resident of Palo Verde School
on Oct 11, 2017 at 6:52 pm

I think the primary cause for Palo Alto kids' 'social deficiency', 'anxiety', and 'depression' is their workload.

Back in my day, we hardly had any homework at the high school level. We would study OURSELVES to get a good grade on the tests, but we could do that on our own time. That gave us lots of free time for sports, friendships, and hobbies.

Palo Alto high schoolers today, however, are given hours of homework each night. Often, the homework isn't actually very good for studying, so they have to dedicate extra study time on top of their normal homework. Combined with even a single extracurricular, and suddenly kids barely have time for hobbies or socialization.

We think Palo Alto kids are unhappy because they don't know how to socialize. The district implements programs like 'SELF' to teach kids social interaction. However, I think that the lack of social interaction and friendships isn't because the kids are all shy, clueless dumdums that need to be taught to socialize. I think that the kids simply can't make time for friendships outside of their brief recess and lunch in school.

A potential solution: cut the huge daily load of homework for high schoolers. By the time they are upperclassmen, the vast majority know themselves well enough and are responsible enough for self-study at home. Make homework more like college, where it's reading and concepts instead of big packets and busywork. This will probably help kids study more efficiently, and it will free up time for kids to pursue their interests. I think only at that point we will see a resurgence of happiness for PAUSD kids like in my day.

7 people like this
Posted by Hippie Mom
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 12, 2017 at 9:39 am

My Gunn freshman, who is social with peers, says SELF is terrible, and "EVERYONE HATES SELF!" One of her big complaints is that it's boring and a waste of time.

PAUSD needs to get feedback from kids before they decide to implement SELF district-wide. As an adult, I think SELF seems like a dream program on paper... but kids are the ultimate judge. Perhaps Wellness Center and more 'assemblies' with interesting guest speakers (they were always fun when I was in high school) would be most impactful use of district dollars.

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Posted by Why stay?
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 12, 2017 at 10:01 am

Why stay? is a registered user.

What with all the construction at Gunn, the generally bleak campus, the pressure relayed in the article, and so much of the school day spent on the bureaucracy that is SELF, I'm starting to look at alternatives to Gunn. I have some friends who have finagled their way into Paly, but that seems limited. Are the main alternatives private, moving, or home schooling?

6 people like this
Posted by Why stay?
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 12, 2017 at 10:02 am

Why stay? is a registered user.

What with all the construction at Gunn, the generally bleak campus, the pressure relayed in the article, and so much of the school day spent on the bureaucracy that is SELF, I'm starting to look at alternatives to Gunn. I have some friends who have finagled their way into Paly, but that seems limited. Are the main alternatives private, moving, or home schooling?

3 people like this
Posted by Homeschooler
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 12, 2017 at 1:16 pm

@Why stay,

In terms of homeschooling, it's easier if you homeschool through a charter school like Ocean Grove, which might be only one of two charter school options for homeschooling in this area. Ocean Grove is a California public school whose charter is to facilitate homeschooling. They provide you with an accredited CA teacher to work with your kid(s), they allow high schoolers to take classes at community colleges like Foothill, they provide the site and personnel to take care of state/CAASPP testing, they give you semester funds to pay for academic and extracurricular courses ($1350/per semester for high schoolers), and they have many academic and extracurricular options to choose from. You can customize a regular and online curriculum for your kid(s). I believe that one of the top, local "Russian-style" math programs is on their list of vendors as well as other challenging programs such as Art of Problem Solving for advanced mathematics students.

Other advantages of homeschooling through a charter school whose goal is to help make homeschooling easier for families (in a nutshell):
*academic assessments by actual teachers
*the opportunity to accelerate students who are advanced for their age/grade
*the opportunity to decelerate students who are behind age/grade level
*students have the opportunity to sleep longer than they would in PAUSD
*you have far more control over homework load than you would in PAUSD and could aim for no homework, even
*kids can balance their time with peers and with individual learning
*individual learning habits can really take off, which is crucial for college
*more time for family, socializing, hobbies, etc.

Other homeschooling charters might provide similar, but I'm most familiar with Ocean Grove.

19 people like this
Posted by Our kids learn by watching us.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 12, 2017 at 3:43 pm

Our kids learn by watching us. is a registered user.

My child graduated from Gunn last year. She was very well prepared for college and made some lovely friends. She did NOT get straight As. She took only a few AP classes that interested her. She is attending a competitive college and enjoying the experience immensely.

She was blessed to be part of the wonderful theatre program that is still so ably guided by Mr. Shelby and Ms. Lo. She sang with Mr. Lib. She embraced the crazy fun of Spirit Week. She cried with friends through break-ups. She drove herself through finals week. (Who doesn't? I did in high school, too.) She grieved over the election of POTUS Trump (her 18th birthday followed the election.) She rode her bike, she danced, she organized theme parties with friends. In short, she had a pretty normal high school experience at Gunn with adolescent ups and downs. Your child can too.

If you want kids to feel awful about their lives, go ahead and pick at every little thing their high school does and pester them constantly about their grades and extra-curriculars as though their life depends on getting into Harvard or a UC. It doesn't. Instead, I suggest that you get actively involved and help with community building activities around the activities your student is passionate about. Have family meals (breakfast or dinner) as often as possible. Get to KNOW your student and his friends. Encourage your student to have friends over on the weekends for brunch or impromptu gatherings. When you see that your student is enjoying a little down time, don't ask if his homework is done. Instead, invite him to play some music or watch a movie with you. You might be surprised how glad he'll be to do that. Give him a hug and tell him you love him.

Help others as a family, do some volunteer work together (not as a resume-building exercise, but because it feels good to help others and it is the right thing to do). Trust me when I say this will pay off in spades as your child learns that he can do good in the world and that he is connected in many ways to all other people and our planet.

The time we have with our kids is short and so precious. Put your heart and your energy and time into it. Enjoy it. Teach your child by example how to live a happy, ethical, and balanced life.

Less kvetching...more support, more listening, more problem-solving, more love.

Life is good. We teach our children this fundamental knowledge by the modeling it in the way we live our lives. Live well. Your children are watching.

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Posted by Why stay?
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 12, 2017 at 8:32 pm

Why stay? is a registered user.

@above poster, absolutely, if we go to Gunn, we will commit to making it a success. And it will be fine, most likely. Band would be great.

The question I'm asking, though, is should we go there to begin with? No high school is perfect, and all kids are different, but it seems like a perfect storm at Gunn, and it's reflected in the new wellness building, the new wellness courses (mandatory), the new wellness policies. (Wellness is also the name of my dog's food, but that is probably neither here nor there.) It just seems overdone. And ineffective, based on this story. The school seems tainted.

I know, "be the change" and all that. But I worry that there's something systemic, and enough change won't happen fast enough.

4 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 12, 2017 at 8:59 pm

Why stay, you should do what you like of course. But the idea that something is wrong with or "tainted" about Gunn is just incorrect. It's public high school, good and bad, in a fancy suburb. If you want that product, Gunn is good. If not, it's not like Paly, or Los Altos, or New Trier IL or Lexington MA or Princeton NJ is much different.

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Posted by Why stay?
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 13, 2017 at 8:51 pm

Why stay? is a registered user.

I should give an example of what alarms me, because it is so much easier to stay with the default school and make the best of it, as "Our kids" suggests. At a recent assembly at JLS, kids were talking about challenges they faced, and my kid came home saying that kids were talking about cutting themselves. I nearly swallowed my tongue. This kind of behavior, and the suicides at Gunn -- it is not (in my book) even remotely normal, and deeply alarms me. I am concerned that, however wonderful and loving our home life may be, steeping in this kind of brew for so many hours every day can affect even the sanest of kids. We go along with it like sheep, declaring it the new normal I suppose, especially for "districts like ours", but wow. It is deeply disturbing to me.

7 people like this
Posted by Solution
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 14, 2017 at 10:47 am

Besides the overload of work, students need more sleep. They are supposed to have 9-10 hours (although no one does) but I’m guessing most get 5-7. The AP hoarders are easily on the 4-5 hour sleep schedule because there just isn’t enough to time to finish the schoolwork and do extracurriculars, study for SAT. There is no reason to take more than 3 AP classes in one year. But even regular lane students can have a lot of homework and aren’t getting enough sleep because the teen body is set to wake up later than the adult body (it’s a proven biological fact). Sleep deprivation is a form of torture - excuse the drama here, but it leads to poor judgment, loss of joy, hopelessness. Our students aren’t mature adults so they shouldn’t be treated as such. Many students are just “doing school”, as one Paly teacher described.

They revised the bell schedule but made students stay longer on Thursdays and kept the start time at 8:15. Menlo-Atherton starts at 9:30 and they have sports teams too. While it’s a 6 Period day, students don’t need 7 period days to graduate from Paly. Students’ emotional states would likely improve if they had more sleep; they should try a trial run with student evaluations. But that would be too simple. And teachers want to take the earlier train and earlier commute, supposedly the reason for not delaying the start time.

6 people like this
Posted by Our kids learn by watching us
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 14, 2017 at 12:59 pm

Our kids learn by watching us is a registered user.

Again, My child had a good experience at Gunn. She went to bed regularly at 10pm. We encouraged minimizing screen time by offering pleasant family time alternatives and inviting friends over for socializing and activities)and never allowing electronics at the family table or in the bedrooms of our home. Our home was a gathering place--for studying and for fun. We encouraged our student to take APs that interested her--and discouraged loading up on them. This minimized her course load and gave her time for a full life. (Again, she got into a competitive college where she is very happy.) Did she still experience some stress? Yes. Some stress is part of life for all of us. It is important to experience some stress to learn how to manage it. Did she have love, support and room to manage stressful periods like finals? Yes...because she planned her time thoughtfully with the help of her family.

We provided a family structure that enabled fun in her life. Though I went to school on the east coast 40 years ago, my family did this for me too. They modeled a balanced life...and I learned from their example. This is the job of parents--to teach our children how to live when they are gone from our home.

Grade pressure is becoming a national problem, largely driven by badly managed college admissions processes and anxious parents. If you think similar pressures are not at Paly, you are out of touch with kids there. The local media likes to focus their negative stories on Gunn. This is developing a very negative view of the school by people who have never been there. it is not helpful. Our family has spent a lot of time at Gunn, and we have a much more balanced view of it.

I talked with a Gunn student (not my kid) today who said she likes Gunn. Like my daughter she has parents who set limits and work together with her to plan and manage the balance of school, family and other activities separately. She is a senior, writing her first college applications. She's an excellent student, but the process is highly competitive and it is intimidating. There is no protecting our kids from this, but we can help them apply to a range of schools, including some safety schools that they really do want to attend. We can relax and give our kids support at home, trusting that developing a healthy, whole person is better than burning them out before they even get to college. It's all about CHOICES.

3 people like this
Posted by Homeschooler
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 14, 2017 at 5:42 pm

Someone brought up the sleep issue . . .

I'm not a huge fan of CNN, but they did have a recent article about sleep deprivation that noted the possible short-term and long-term effects on teenagers: Web Link

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Posted by PA Teacher & Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 14, 2017 at 11:10 pm

"Our kids learn by watching us" makes some good points. As a teacher and a parent in the area, with much experience in both, my opinion is that students can thrive when they have parents who are looking out for their best interests (hint: getting into the top university should NOT be considered the top priority).

And as "Why Stay" mentions, cutting is a common problem with teens, but not just in our area (although it seems to be somewhat higher here). As with low grades, alcohol use, high stress, etc, cutting is far more prevalent in families where parents are out of touch with their kids. So let's have open discussions with our kids and keep our priorities straight.

8 people like this
Posted by Another Teacher
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 15, 2017 at 8:42 am

@ Why Stay-

As another teacher and parent in the district I would respond GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN. The mental health logo is our brand now to the point where kids are desensitized, self victims, and a litany of program anacronyms that is pervasive and counter intuitive to a child whose path is to be well rounded. Your intuition is right and I will be pulling my kid out before reaching high school. RUN FOR THE HILLS.

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Posted by @parent/teacher running away
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 15, 2017 at 9:25 am

@parent/teacher running away is a registered user.

@parent/teacher Barron Park

Wherever you escape to, in a few short years students will be in college and mental health programs and "acronyms" abound in most universities.

There was a story somewhere about Stanford allowing pets, which is not a bad idea.

"Well rounded" these days IS to own that people can be vulnerable and that knowing how to ask for help is a life skill (literally).

I don't think it's the mental health programs and acronyms that one really runs away from but the other issues...competitive environment and so forth. That is age old, people suffering from over exertion, it's very personal but if you are not slaving to get into MIT, you can probably have a regular life and have it as well rounded as anywhere.

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Posted by Homeschooler
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 15, 2017 at 10:04 am

The teacher's post above seems, fundamentally, to be blaming parents and assuming they all want their kid(s) to get into the one "top university." The tone of this teacher should be concerning for PAUSD parents. Would you want your child in such a teacher's classroom? While parents might play a role in mental-health issues, such as cutting, the practices of school districts like Palo Alto's might also play a role. The teachers could, for example, cut down on homework loads that would allow students to sleep more. Better sleep often leads to better mental health.

4 people like this
Posted by Educate smarter not harder
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 17, 2017 at 7:32 am

I thought your post was very helpful, especially this:
"Make homework more like college, where it's reading and concepts instead of big packets and busywork."

Like @homeschooler above, we are homeschooling, too. I didn't want to say it because it's not well understood. We found that homeschooling was the way to put the focus back on learning, balance, family and friends, and personal autonomy. Our student didn't thrive in the school environment, in part because of the school overhead, and does far better, and is happier, with more control over personal time and learning the way one has in college. At high school level, that means a mix of community college, online, and selected in-person classes from a large array of offerings. It's possible for people to choose anything from a very traditional kind of education to what is called ""Unschooling". We're thinking of high school in five years to try unschooling a year.

I agree about the homework - you make many good points. I think that's one of the top reasons we left. I'm glad for those in the system who find it works for them, but really sad for the preachy-ness I see above from a few who seem to think others for whom things aren't working just aren't trying what they did.

I am still learning about the different homeschooling options - for those who want a more formal organization relationship, as we did, there aren't just charters, and Ocean Grove and Connecting Waters aren't the only ones. I think Valley View (I'm looking into that one) is available in Santa Clara County, and that program in Fremont (forgot the name) is a charter, but under the Fremont district. I don't think they give funds but they have a physical location with optional classes plus the kids can take classes at the local school if they want, their choice. Cupertino has a relationsgip with homeschoolers, I think it's possible to participate in lunch, recess, and some extracurriculars even if people are homeschooling via private school affadavit. We homeschool directly through a public district, albeit not PAUSD because PAUSD tended to handle independent study on a more limited basis, and where we saw it was more what our student needed, on a more under-the-table-favoritism basis when we approached them about it, and we were not the favored, so that was out at least for us. I think PAUSD would really benefit from providing such ways for families who need it to customize their education. (On asking, one administrator told us they couldn't do that because everyone would want to, which I don't think is true, but even if it were, is not a reason to avoid thinking about making high school student learning more open to that kind of autonomy.) Our public school homeschool program allows homeschool students to take classes at the local school if they wish, extracurriculars, and students have an experienced teacher that they meet with regularly. We live too far away to take advantage of the classes, I dearly wish PAUSD had such a program.

One of the best things about homeschooling has been the ability to have classes with others super interested in learning, with no focus on grades, because courses tend to be more focused on learning. Our student still has lots of work but is better able to strike a balance. In one of our students' community college courses this year, the prof sent out every homework assignment with all due dates after the first class, allowing students a lot of discretion. The goal is to give the best shot at learning, not to create an arbitrary gaunlet. It's still hard work, but the students have far more control of their time and learning, so it's less stressful. There is no reason high school classes can't do that, as @steve suggested.

1 person likes this
Posted by Homeschooler
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 17, 2017 at 6:33 pm

@Educate smarter not harder,

It's interesting and informative to read what you've found in terms of different homeschooling options. You mention how PAUSD should offer more flexibility for students, and perhaps one local-ish example would be Berkeley's independent study program. I'm sure something like that here would appeal to families wanting to homeschool yet remain connected to PAUSD. I agree that there still can be a lot of work, a lot of challenge, when homeschooling. One year, you can aim for little to no homework. Another year, you can knowingly bring it on. There's flexibility and choice.

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