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

Original post made on Mar 26, 2015

My stress began in elementary school, where students were segregated into separate class meetings as "early" and "late" readers, recalls Carolyn Walworth a junior at Palo Alto High School.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Thursday, March 26, 2015, 8:11 AM

Comments (21)

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

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!!

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!

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.

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.

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

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?

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.

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.

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

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

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