Written by Shannon Yang
Several students voiced concerns and recommendations at a student forum on Mon., Feb. 9 at 7:30 p.m. The forum was organized by the Committee for Student Wellness, a group consisting of four students and a teacher advisor. The event included panelists to listen and clarify any confusion, as well as an open space for students to speak and discuss. Panelists included superintendent Max McGee, principal Denise Herrmann, board president Melissa Baten Caswell, trustee Terry Godfrey, and senior class president Mack Radin.
According to committee member Rose Weinmann, who organized the event, the forum was inspired by talks regarding academic stress at Gunn. 25-30 students came and shared their personal experiences and suggestions on how to change student culture at Gunn.
For junior Lindsay Maggioncalda, the biggest issue was Gunn’s definition of success. “Here, we are raised in a way that makes us think we need to be achieving things in order to be valuable,” she said. “We measure our achievement in terms of grades, standardized test scores, the number of extracurriculars we participate in and the colleges we are accepted into. I don’t want to speak for others (though I expect others feel the same), so I’ll just say this: my sense of self-worth is at the mercy of my scores, because those scores measure my achievement—and my level of achievement affects how much I value myself. And the comparison that comes inevitably with the frequent score-sharing among the whole community doesn’t help at all.”
Junior Grace Park noted a prioritization of appearance over passion. “[Some] people spend their time building their resumes rather than doing what they care about,” Park said.
Senior Pratyusha Meka believed that the Gunn environment valued different types of people over others. “Yes, our robotics team, sports teams, dance team and theater programs are great,” she said. “What about the others who have other talents? I think it’s great that we have great actors, singers and engineers, but we need to start displaying the talents of the bakers, poets and artists as well.”
Despite the quantitative definition of success carried out by many of her peers, junior Sarah Reich wanted to shift the focus onto a holistic view of the individual. “We focus a lot on the numbers,” Reich said. “But there are also personal qualities and interests, which are more important. I find myself cutting these things out of my life in order to improve those numbers.”
The Advanced Placement Hype
Currently, there aren’t many options for upperclassmen to take a non-AP course in the science department, but the history-social sciences department is quite the opposite. Students argued that Gunn is missing essential courses such as AP European History, AP Human Geography and AP US Government and Politics for those interested in the humanities. “I wasn’t interested in APUSH, but I would definitely take an AP Government class,” senior Grace Gandolfo said.
Senior Lianna McFarlane-Connelly explained her proposal to allow sophomores access to APs. “People want to inflate their weighted GPA, it puts a lot of stress on junior year because you’d have to take a ton of APs then,” she said.
Though senior Joowon Lee recognized the impact eliminating weighted grades would have on reducing aforementioned pressure, she urged the panel not to implement it for the class of 2016. “The juniors already took the APs because they chose these classes while they still thought they could be rewarded for it,” she said.
Shifting Instructional Methods and Accountability
Sioned Hughes graduated early, is working a full-time job and is on track to attend college in the fall. A traditional classroom setting at Gunn was not conducive to her positive learning, so she did her credits on an online platform through the Independent Studies program. “There are so many alternate forms of education that no one ever talks about,” Hughes said. “For a lot of students, the seven hours a day of classes is just adding on to the students’ stress here. All my friends are unhappy. If more people knew, I think we wouldn’t be in the top 100 schools in America, but we’d be happier.”
However, for teachers of the majority of students stuck in normal classrooms, engaging stressed-out students proves challenging. Senior Amy Macrae suggested giving prep time during class. “Teachers should consider giving us a few minutes at the beginning of our first class to make sure everything is organized for the day ahead,” Macrae said. “Having some time designated to make sure things are all done correctly would be very beneficial to some people.”
Reich believes in the power of student feedback. She proposed that after every homework assignment, the teachers should ask how long it took.
A couple of students also pointed out that many teachers don’t actively seek to improve but instead, ignore constructive criticism. “Teachers can give students teacher evaluations,” senior Guy Kasznik said. “But, if teachers get a bad review, they could act like nothing happened and they toss it aside—as far as I’m concerned.”
Junior Yasmine Hamady said that often teachers ignored important laws and policies. “I have ADD and dyslexia, but sometimes teachers don’t want to give me the accommodations, like extra time on tests, that they are required to give me by law because of my 504,” Hamady said.
Most of the attendees agreed that tutorial was always packed with 30-40 students and that it was hard to find help from teachers. For senior Danny Golovinsky, this was a real struggle. “We don’t have the same preps and he [my teacher] likes to eat lunch during lunch,” Golovinsky said.
The Stigma of Academic Weakness
In the aftermath of Cameron Lee’s death, Maggioncalda felt guilt at not being able to keep up with her work. “When I got extensions after Cam’s death, I felt like I was cheating,” she said.
However, this strong academic competition isn’t just in times of crisis. Park expressed weakness in her AP Calculus BC class. “A lot of my classmates have either taken a prep class over the summer or are geniuses who knew this since middle school,” Park said. “I feel like I’m the only one who’s learning the material from scratch. It’s very difficult to voice the fact that you don’t know something.”
This seems to be a trend in many classes. “A lot of my peers have tutors,” Reich said. “I think that when a majority of people start needing tutors, we need to reevaluate the resources offered for helping students. It doesn’t make sense for even a quarter of a class of people to go outside of school and get paid tutoring.”
In addition, people are often academically bullied for not being in the highest lane, despite learning more and having more fun. “My little sister was getting a lot of peer pressure for being the only one of her friends not in honors lane geometry,” a senior said.
For students, simple academic failure leads to shame and embarrassment. “[A friend] was embarrassed to not know,” Hughes said. “That’s so shameful. There’s so much emotion and stigma around simply not knowing something. School should be about loving learning, along with the way that it happens.”
A Broken Counseling System
Macrae has had four different guidance counselors: one for every year of high school. Not only did she, along with many other seniors, have to deal with establishing new bonds with their counselors, but she also saw drastic individual differences. “There needs to be a more unified counseling department,” she said at the forum. “Not having to sneak away to someone else’s counselor who can actually help you is important.”
Sophomore Quinn McGannon also noticed this inconsistency when she tried to switch out of a teacher who impeded her success. Though some in the guidance office told her they could work it out, others said she couldn’t switch, leaving McGannon going around in circles. “I don’t understand why I had to fight so hard just to switch teachers,” she said. “I felt like they all didn’t want me to succeed.”
Lee hoped that the guidance department and ACS would alleviate students’ burdens, as many students turn to peers for help but never counselors. “It shouldn’t only be the students’ job [to help students in crisis],” she said.
A senior suggested that the the counselors could try reaching out on a regular basis rather than just for grade-level conferences and academic concerns. “If they tried talking to us, we’d be more willing to open up and share,” she said.
A Plan for Action
The school is re-implementing a Creative Bell Schedule Committee—which existed among the staff last year but has now expanded to all stakeholder groups—as part of the WASC plan. It is looking into proposals such as the block schedule and other options for tutorial.
The administration and guidance department have begun to encourage students to make less stress-inducing decisions. An updated time management worksheet, along with the AP Student Contract, is encouraging students to to take a maximum of two APs.
In the newly released WASC executive report, one of the three main goals is to redefine success. According to McGee, the report urges the creation of an “e-portfolio,” which will allow students to display qualitative achievements rather than quantitative, numerical grades and scores.