Paly student tells of school stress: 'Students are gasping for air'


Carolyn Walworth is the Palo Alto High School student representative on the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education.

By Carolyn Walworth

Paly junior Carolyn Walworth.
As I sit in my room staring at the list of colleges I've resolved to try to get into, trying to determine my odds of getting into each, I can't help but feel desolate.

As a junior at Palo Alto High School, and a student who has been through the entire PAUSD system, I feel qualified to speak about problems at our schools.

My stress began in elementary school, where students were segregated into separate class meetings as "early" and "late" readers. Although we were just elementary schoolers, we perceived this as a differentiation between the less and more advanced students and either felt superior due to our intellect or shamed for a "lack" thereof.

Middle school didn't get any better. At the end of sixth grade, we were placed into either Pre-Algebra or Pre-Algebra Advanced, though nobody referred to the classes as such. Any math class without the word advanced in it was referred to as the "dumb" math lane (a label that has followed into high school math courses as well). I like to think of this as the reason I lost my enthusiasm and confidence for math so early -- how could I possibly feel intelligent when the class I was in was considered dumb?

That brings us to high school, where the serious stress begins.

I consider myself a prime example of the PAUSD system. Upon entering high school, I was genuinely interested in learning. I wanted to use my education to achieve my goals and help solve problems in the world.

A month or two into my freshman year, I felt the pressure building. It crushes you on the inside to see what appears to be the majority of your classmates acing tests with flying colors, while you're just doing all right. A piece of you cringes when you hear that your friend has been preparing for the SAT with classes since last summer, and that they're already scoring a 2000. (And what about that freshman who mentioned he was already preparing to take his subject tests at the end of the year? And the girl taking a summer immersion program to skip ahead and get into AP French her sophomore year? And that internship your best friend has with a Stanford professor?)

You can't help but slip into the system of competitive insanity related to college admissions to achieve social normalcy. You learn that it is okay and necessary to have great apprehension regarding your grades. You focus on getting straight A's. You go to bed at 1 AM every night, only to wake up a few hours later (earlier if you have morning practice for your sport) in an effort to get your excessive amount of homework finished each night.

But at least you have the weekends to relax and pursue your own interests, right? No, there's another surfeit of homework waiting for you on Friday night, plus SAT practice. Of course, we're expected to maintain a social life and spend adequate time with our families as well.

Don't forget to add the typical pressures of being a teenager into the mix (troubled friendships, relationships, jealousy, identity issues, drugs, alcohol, hormones, general mental health issues, etc.).

I could go on in detail about the times I've had to go to urgent care because my stress and ensuing physical pain have been so concerning. I could tell you how I've missed periods because I've had so many tests to study for. I could express what it feels like to have a panic attack in the middle of a thirty person class and be forced to remain still.

I am sick and tired of seeing my classmates struggle with the challenges of being teenagers and having to deal with this lunacy on top of it. I feel nothing less than despair and empathy when I hear of another student who is suicidal or depressed.

I want students in this district to be content, enjoy their lives, and view our schools as places where they can come and receive legitimate support for any of their problems. And, let me make clear, I understand that not all problems relating to suicide and depression are directly correlated to school. I am not saying that they are nor do I wish to assign blame for either of these issues to the schools. Suicidal thoughts and depression are complex, unique, and extremely personal difficulties.

However, it must still be acknowledged that when you are already struggling with such issues, being in a stressful, unpleasant, and competitive environment for nearly eight hours a day that continues when you arrive home surely cannot help.

Telling us to go see a school counselor for stress is insufficient. It is analogous to putting a band aid over a fresh gunshot wound. Students in our district understand how to cope with stress; the real problem is that they simply have too much of it to cope with.

Students are gasping for air, lacking the time to draw a measly breath in.

We are the product of a generation of Palo Altans that so desperately wants us to succeed but does not understand our needs.

We are not teenagers. We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages teamwork and genuine learning. We lack sincere passion. We are sick.

We, as a community, have completely lost sight of what it means to learn and receive an education.

Why is that not getting through to this community? Why does this insanity that is our school district continue?

It is time to rethink the way we teach students. It is time to reevaluate and enforce our homework policy. It is time to impose harsher punishments upon teachers who do not comply with district standards such as not assigning homework during finals review time.

It is time we wake up to the reality that Palo Alto students teeter on the verge of mental exhaustion every single day. It is time to realize that we work our students to death. It is time to hold school officials accountable. Right now is the time to act.

Effective education does not have to correlate to more stress. Taking an advanced course should not be synonymous with copious amounts of homework. Challenging oneself academically and intellectually should be about just that -- a mental challenge which involves understanding concepts at a deeper level.

The ever increasing intertwinement between advanced courses and excessive homework baffles me; indeed, I would say that it only demonstrates our district's shortcomings, our teachers' inabilities to teach complex materials in a way that students are entertained by and can understand. Instead, they rely on excessive homework to do the teaching for them.

These are issues that absolutely cannot wait. Please, no more endless discussions about what exactly it is that is wrong with our schools, and, above all, no more empty promises. Students live under constant stress every day of their lives. It is time to get to work.

Whether you are a student, parent, or concerned citizen, email Palo Alto's superintendent, board members, and high school administrators. Tell them that you will not continue to stand for the excessive stress that they and their colleagues impose upon our town's teenagers.

Tell them you demand that they actually get to work improving the quality of life for students. Inform them that although it is nice of them to recognize student and staff successes at school board meetings, you would much rather see them devote the time to discussing how to improve student well-being at Paly and Gunn.

Now that I'm nearing the end of my academic career in Palo Alto, I'd like to nostalgically look back and remember how much fun I had growing up, learning, and being a teenager in our city.

I'm sorry to say I won't be able to do that even in the slightest degree.

The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture the numerous voices, opinions and our news coverage on teen well-being. This page will continue to be updated. To view it, go to

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1 person likes this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 26, 2015 at 9:19 am

Chiara de Blasio Is the Face of NYC Initiative to Fight Teen Depression

Web Link

19 people like this
Posted by pogo
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 26, 2015 at 9:35 am

pogo is a registered user.

Perhaps the most well written piece on the subject that I have ever read. Kudos to Carolyn for relating this to us in such human terms.

This should be required reading for every parent, teacher and student ... in all districts. I am sending this to my daughter's principal immediately.

Thank you, Carolyn. I think you are an amazing young woman.

6 people like this
Posted by Rachel
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 26, 2015 at 12:36 pm

Parents need to participate in this as well - if we continue to push our children and project the expectation that academic excellence is the only acceptable performance standard, we hijack the changes that are called for.

10 people like this
Posted by Louise68
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 26, 2015 at 1:26 pm

Carolyn Walworth -----
Thank you for your bold and honest story. I think it should be mandatory reading for all school administrators and teachers and parents and legislators -- and everyone who cares about the future of our society. I agree completely -- the way you students are treated now is insane -- and not only insane, but is criminal. It is a form of child abuse, and must STOP -- NOW!

To the Almanac -----
Thank you from the bottom of my amazed and grateful heart for publishing this incredibly important essay. Thank you very much for giving Carolyn Walworth a public forum to share her incredibly important story.

1 person likes this
Posted by MP resident
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Mar 26, 2015 at 1:29 pm

Question for MP parents/students: is the school system (both K-8) and Menlo Atherton as competitive? Does it suffer from the same problems?

12 people like this
Posted by Annegrace
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Mar 26, 2015 at 1:49 pm

I saw a big change in parent expectations and demands from the time my first child started Kindergarten in 1989 and when the last child was finishing up middle school in 2003. We had tracking and different levels of math in middle school and I made sure my kids were fine with where they were placed and tried to not stress them out. Other parents put a lot of pressure on their kids to be the smartest, most athletic and all around star and it took its toll on some kids. My kids went to M-A and I think the pressure cooker atmosphere is lessened in a place where there are many soci-economic levels. Some of the stresses of the poorer kids that we met at MA put our own lives into perspective. I hope that parents, schools and teachers can find help for kids who need it, be it emotional or academic, and start defusing some of the craziness.

14 people like this
Posted by lessons learned
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Mar 26, 2015 at 2:05 pm

lessons learned is a registered user.

I have a student at M-A, and I had one go through Paly. M-A is still rigorous, but it's not a pressure cooker. I don't see the student-to-student comparisons this student mentions.

Paly and Gunn consistently achieve national rankings (for example, Web Link) whereas M-A does not, probably because of the student diversity that also makes the school feel more real world. For this reason, I suspect that Gunn and Paly are more likely to attract the super-competitive families who amplify the stress levels for everyone.

If you compare M-A to the Palo Alto schools, you'll see similar numbers of kids getting accepted to top tier colleges. M-A students work hard, but they don't seem to have crazy homework, and they do have fun. It's a good balance.

27 people like this
Posted by Fed-up Parent
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 26, 2015 at 2:09 pm

I applaud Carolyn Walworth for this poignant and insightful essay. I've watched my teenagers and their friends try to navigate through incomprehensible expectations that include hours of nightly homework, standardized test prep, ever-increasing demands of sports teams (both school and club), service-learning requirements, all while experiencing the emotional upheaval and identity search that comes with being a teenager. I first heard the term "teacup student" (meaning fragile and easily broken into a million pieces) years ago when my kids were toddlers. Nothing has changed in the years since; in fact, it is worse. The pressure to perform academically and in sports has been pushed ever younger. It's not unusual for first- and second-grade students to be so overloaded with tutors, rigorous sports schedules and the requisite instrument lesson that they don't have a single afternoon or weekend off to have a friend over. By the time these kids arrive at high school, they are already exhausted. And then the real work begins.

While Ms. Walworth lays much of the blame for the pressure she and her peers experience in high school on the school and the teachers, the problem is much closer to home, and exacerbated by unreasonable expectations of college admissions offices. What will it take for us parents to stop sacrificing our children's mental and physical well-being for the prestige that comes with being able to say they got into XYZ college? I would rather that my children be happy and well-adjusted than miserable and bound for an Ivy League school...or any college for that matter. There are many paths to success in life, not just through the gates of Stanford.

3 people like this
Posted by Beth
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 26, 2015 at 4:26 pm

Thank you for this article, Carolyn. It's an excellent resource, and I hope the parents, students, schools & PTAs use your experience and insights to find the solutions for this unfortunate and unnecessary problem. The entire world needs to move from excessive competition toward excessive cooperation and compromise.

3 people like this
Posted by really?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 26, 2015 at 6:16 pm

really? is a registered user.

Do away with homework and GPA's. Have everything focused on comprehensive exams at the end of the year (as done in Europe), and all this madness will go away.

9 people like this
Posted by pogo
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 26, 2015 at 8:29 pm

pogo is a registered user.

I think the madness emanates from the expectations of the parents.

We not only live in Silicon Valley, which is characterized by cutting edge and super achievers, but we live in an area that is abundant with graduates from Stanford and Berkeley and lots of high achieving executives, professors and professionals. They have high expectations for their children and the pressure is palpable.

I once heard a story that a Paly student felt that as soon as they got their first "B" in a class, that their life-long dream (and expectation) that they would attend Stanford, like their parents, was over. I'm depressed just to hear that sentiment!

My daughter's high school has a college counselor and she once told me that so many parents are devastated when their child doesn't get into their first choice school.

She also said something important that resonated with me. She asked, "Suppose you move heaven and earth to get a marginally qualified student into one of those colleges? Do you really want your kid to be the poorest performing student in every one of their classes? How would that feel? Or do you want your child to be in the top third of their class where they can excel in some, work hard in others and have a great experience?"

It was enlightening advice.

5 people like this
Posted by Lorraine W
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Mar 26, 2015 at 9:21 pm

Carolyn, thank you for portraying your honest experience. Although, as a parent, it was difficult to hear, it was very eye opening. Thank you for your courage and outreach! This is well needed information for all of us!!

Like this comment
Posted by Stephanie
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Mar 28, 2015 at 1:32 pm

I want this child to know how I wish your voice was heard 6 years ago. Thank you for your bravery and your exceptional real time view. I hope this can keep one or more of our children from getting involved in heroin, or in the cases of eating disorders both male and female.
In 2008 10,000 students applied to San Diego state university when my daughter applied, out of that 10,000 they only had room and accepted 3,000. (Fifty dollars an application.)
I have had the honor of meeting many children from Paly and Gunn only to find out the drug use was ramp-ted. A young man who had graduated from Paly who was a regular at my house for two years died of an overdose, because you see it is the parents and not the schools responsible for the schools structure. What happens after school, that is why suicide on the tracks is so popular here. I have many stories from menlo and the overbearing parents. Please wake up to the persons who can't admit that MA is the same as Paly and Gunn.
From my house I can throw a rock and it can hit the Palo Alto, Menlo border, we are that close! If I turn to my left and throw another rock I can hit East Menlo and East Palo Alto. After living thru the aftermath the only solution I could come up with is not more rehabilitation centers. Its take your money parents, go out and buy as many street drugs that you possibly can get your hands on to keep them from your children. We need to be involved in the fight against heroin and let the schools go back to teaching again. Remember no one cares about a junkie, unless your gave birth to them!

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Woodside: Mountain Home Road
on Mar 30, 2015 at 7:02 am

Dear Carolyn,
Thank you for so eloquently articulating the challenges you have faced while growing up in Palo Alto school district. I feel your pain and I think you make a lot of valid points and shine a light where changes are needed.
I can't emphasize enough how strongly I feel it begins in the home. Parents need to prepare their children for whatever they face by practicing acceptance around areas where their kids display average and not excellence. By showing our love and support whether they are receiving A's or B's or other. By helping them to find and cultivate their passion, whether it is unique or cookie cutter, it's theirs.
When we send our children out into the school world, it won't be so much as what happens to them, but how we help them process it.

8 people like this
Posted by A Parent
a resident of another community
on Mar 31, 2015 at 11:28 am

As a parent who is also a Stanford alumn (and one of my kids also attended Stanford) I think those who have pointed out the lack of socio-econimic diversity in Palo Alto schools has a good point. Back in "the day" my parents weren't CEOS or professors, in fact neither of them even had a college degree, yet I was able to attend Stanford. Now a story like mine is rare (and I'm very sure my high school senior self wouldn't possibly have been admitted to Stanford now.) Parents need to expose their children to people from all walks of life, instead of keeping them in this hyper-structured, rarefied cocoon that some parents seem to think is a good idea. The real world includes all kinds of people with all kinds of perspectives and raising a child who can navigate the real world is much more important than raising a child who can only navigate a country-club.

Like this comment
Posted by Dr. Carol
a resident of another community
on Apr 2, 2015 at 11:11 am

Excellent article Carolyn. I'd like to talk to you about these issues. I too see these pressures first hand challenging teens in the bay area.

I'm an educator, researcher and self-esteem advocate. I have a book and play for teens that focus on many of the issues you mention above. Id love to get your opinion and perspective to strengthen my work in this area to help teens and parents. I'd also like to interview you for my podcast series.

I hope you will please contact me
(my blog:

Thank you for writing this article.
Dr. Carol

2 people like this
Posted by stephanie
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Apr 9, 2015 at 10:24 am

Carolyn didn't the district hear a word you said? I just read the article. The district did not address one item where they are responsible for the stress you children are under,where they could make immediate change. They just are bringing in more people with the authority to write the kids a prescrition for more medication. Another way these pills are getting on the streets. How long will it take and how many more lives? Get all your statics. how many children have been seen at urgent care at el camino and at stanford. how many have walked away with a prescription. How many kids have given these meds to their friends?

2 people like this
Posted by stephanie
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Apr 9, 2015 at 10:36 am

As a parent I would like you to take that 250000.and hire body guards for the children in immediate danger of committing suicide tomorrow or the one next week instead. she said stress with coping with the demands. Stop the violations to the policies. Carolyn it's time for you and the students to strike.

Like this comment
Posted by Juil
a resident of another community
on Nov 20, 2015 at 6:46 pm

Not to diminish your troubles, but I think it is quite typical of stressed out people (not just young people) to throw up their hands and say what the system is offering is not enough, without actually going through the process of fully utilizing what is available. If the counsellor available is incompetent, that's a whole other issue.

And then to claim that you know how to cope with stress, but there's just too much stress to cope with. That means you don't know how to cope with it. The way you cope with little stresses will obviously be different from how you cope with larger ones.

As far as split classes go, that is a valid way to help students learn at a pace suited to their current level of skill. But the purpose of these classes should be to catch up with the advanced class, which it seems like it isn't.

Yes, the system should support the children in it (that is its purpose after all), but there are other issues at play that also need to be addressed. Namely the expectations of parents.

Like this comment
Posted by Jessica
a resident of another community
on Nov 20, 2015 at 6:48 pm

It is interesting to note that the greater focus on "success", and the stress that it brings, has increased slightly lagging the destruction of the economy thanks to globalization and what's mislabeled as "free trade".

- Jessica

2 people like this
Posted by Aaron
a resident of another community
on Nov 20, 2015 at 10:22 pm

I am a product of the public school system. I started out as a student in accelerated classes, and started to fall behind in late junior high, and never recovered. I have since finished college, and have a successful career - many years later. It was very hard. We will *NEVER* send our daughter to public school.

I think public education is an abject failure. I don't understand why American society continues to pour money into this system that DOES NOT WORK. You simply CANNOT treat every student as if they are the same, and learn the same ways, and at the same rate. Stop applying a cookie cutter approach!!

College is mostly worthless too, unless you plan on a career in medicine, law, or engineering. You incur mountains of debt, and a degree that may or may not help you with finding employment. Education should *not* be confused with college. The two are not the same. You can get an education WITHOUT all the debt.

If any of you want to talk about this more, feel free to reach me on Twitter. @akulbe

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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