Scholastic Culture Causes Stress

Colin Jones, Staff Writer

Oxford University is believed to have been founded almost a thousand years ago. Along with its contemporaries – including the universities of Paris and Bologna – it was one of the first institutions of higher education, at least in the modern sense of the term.

Fast forward several centuries to the Renaissance and Enlightenment, when formal education became even more widespread. By the twentieth century, to be educated was normal – not some special privilege for the wealthy.

And this is how it remains today in America. At a young age, children are put into preschool and daycares, where they are given instruction on proper social behavior. Then they find themselves in elementary school, learning the basics of math, language, history, and science. When they get a bit older, in middle school, they experience the transition from foundational learning to more sophisticated pursuits. Then, perhaps most crucial phase of their childhood education arrives: high school.

High school is an incredibly high-pressure environment for many students. It can be overwhelming to be thrown into the intensely competitive college race. In a 2013 interview with NPR, Colleen Franey, a high schooler in Tualatin, Oregon, said that the pressure of high school was making her sick. She suffered from headaches and stomach pains during her sophomore year.

In decades past, students had an easier time passing through high school, not just because it was academically easier, but also because high school is now more crucial to earning scholarships and grants. According to the College Board, since 1974, average college tuition fees have tripled (adjusted for inflation). IvyWise shows that just 10 years ago, admissions rates for the country’s most selective colleges were, on average, nearly twice as high as they are now.

This is no longer the case. To get into the most selective colleges, a high school student must maintain high grades in their numerous advanced placement [AP] courses, perform well on sports teams, and participate heavily in various extracurriculars, in addition to finding a way to pay for the steep tuition. According to NPR’s article, “School Stress Takes a Toll on Health Teens and Parents Say”, this pressure to get into college is one of the main sources of high school stress.

Faced with such a daunting task, anyone could feel stressed. And indeed, stress is a pressing issue for students and educators across the country. The high school environment has become increasingly competitive.

The high-pressure, competitive environment of high school testing bears a great resemblance to the civil service exams of ancient China, taken by candidates for government work. According to an article titled “Cribbing Garment” from the Princeton Guest Library, the tests were incredibly difficult and often caused takers stress-related health issues.

According to USA Today, “40% of teens report feeling irritable or angry; 36% nervous or anxious. A third say stress makes them feel overwhelmed, depressed or sad. 59% report that managing their time to balance all activities is a somewhat or very significant stressor; 40% say they neglected responsibilities at home because of stress; 21% say they neglected work or school because of stress; 32% say they experience headaches because of stress; 26% report changes in sleeping habits, and 26% report snapping at or being short with classmates or teammates when under stress.”

Almost 40% of parents say their high-schooler is experiencing a lot of stress from school, according to a new NPR poll conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. In most cases, that stress is from academics, not social issues or bullying, the poll found.

On a more local spectrum, the San Jose Mercury News said that “25% of teens have suffered anxiety at some time in their lives, 11.2% major depression and 2.4% agoraphobia.”

Mental health has been an oft-covered issue at Bay Area high schools, namely in Los Altos and Palo Alto. According to the aforementioned NPR article, one Alameda student, Nora Huynh, received her report card and, upon seeing that she had not gotten a perfect 4.0, had a breakdown. The Mercury News reported that a Los Altos senior actually blacked out when her parents texted her simply to talk about her grades.

The problem actually goes even further back than high school in some cases. One Morgan Hill elementary school was forced to implement a program to fight school-related depression among its fourth and fifth graders.

“I think that with the addition of standardized testing as well as academics and balancing sports and other extracurriculars, students [at Campo] are often very stressed,” said sophomore Kaveh Boostanpour.

In high-pressure schools across the country – like Campolindo – the workload is often crushing. “A lot of students have hours of homework each night,” said Campolindo crisis counselor Katie Rogers. “They finish one night and get a little relief and then come back to school and feel like they have to start all over again.”

Freshman Colin Reynolds agreed, “Most of my stress comes from homework.”

Boostanpour believes that there are some societal factors that also contribute to the stress of Bay Area high schoolers. He said that the wealthy, academic-focused lifestyle of many of his peers can lead them to feel more pressure.

AP Psychology teacher Paul Verbanszky also worries about his student’s stress levels. “With seniors with their college applications, and AP exams, all the classes they take, all the hours of extracurriculars, [students are stressed],” he said.

“When students are stressed, they get sick,” says Verbanszky. “And when they return, they are often overwhelmed [with the amount of work they have to make up] and have a lot of anxiety, and often they lash out in anger and other ways. As a teacher, I try to be very mindful of that.”

The campus administration and Acalanes Union High School District [AUHSD] are attempting to address this growing problem. To this end, AUHSD partnered with Challenge Success, a program organized at Stanford.

“[Challenge Success] is an organization out of Stanford University that specializes in strategies to reduce unhealthy academic stress,” said principal John Walker. “We [parents, staff, administrators, and students] are going to go to a Challenge Success conference to learn about some possible strategies that we can use here.” Walker said the conference will occur in September.

Students took the Stanford Survey of Adolescent School Experiences in April as part of introducing the Challenge Success program.

The survey is designed “to examine student outcomes related to health and well-being, school engagement, students’ perception of teacher support, extracurricular activities, homework, academic worry, academic integrity and beliefs about their parents’ goals and expectations,” according to the Challenge Success website.

Walker said that he is excited to look at the data collected from the survey. “Is it homework that causes stress?” he asked. “Is it too many AP and honors courses that cause stress? What role do athletics and clubs play? We’re going to learn a little bit more about this.”

“If kids actually made an effort to answer all of the questions legitimately, [the survey] will reveal a lot about stress at Campo,” said Boostanpour.

At Campolindo, various regulations are already set in place to help reduce stress. The Student Connectedness initiative, which is meant to solve not only stress issues but general social and academic problems as well, has been implemented this year.

“We of the school staff want to ensure that every student has a positive connection with staff members here at Campo,” said Walker of the Connectedness initiative’s goal. “Not just academic connections, but if any student had a serious issue where they needed to see an adult during the school day, they would have at least one adult that they would be comfortable to see.”

Teachers and students have their own ideas about how to address stress.

“[Teachers] are encouraged to follow the testing schedule and not to give homework over the breaks,” said art teacher Jill Langston.

“The counselors use a time management tool when they help students plan schedules so they don’t overload themselves with academic classes and also take into account whether they have sports, family commitments, or outside jobs,” said Walker. “We’ve had some success with that but we’re still concerned that there is a lot of academic stress at this school.”

The fact is, however, that most students hoping to get into to college do load up on academic courses.  Boostanpour thinks teacher should accept this and simply reduce the amount of content activities they expect their kids to cover. “The stress could be solved if a reasonable amount of homework was given, rather than excessive amounts, and there would be more study sessions,” said Boostanpour.

As for extracurriculars, that’s where Boostanpour draws the line and thinks students need to be responsible for making better choices. “You should do extracurriculars that you enjoy, rather than ones you think you should do just to show off.”

While the issue of student stress is real, there are still a lot of differing opinions about how to solve the crisis. “I know at some colleges they give students puppies to pet before finals,” said senior Nadia Aquil. “I think if people are really stressed the school could get some puppies.”

Aquil is taking six AP courses this year, but remains unstressed, saying that she is mostly taking “the easy ones.”

Students and faculty finally appear willing to accept that there is a problem.

Boostanpour has high hopes. “I think with more organizations being more concerned about student stress, they’re going to start doing more things that will bring down the stress level, and hopefully that will help the students.”