You can add
your voice to our
chorus by signing
our Open Letter
Save the 2,008—for Healthier High Schools
a grassroots alliance for Palo Alto
Thank you for your caring, and for your visit here.
Our thoughts go out to all those—near and far, young and old, in all walks of life—who've been touched by this city's sorrows, this city's loss of so many promising teenagers. No words can adequately salve the grief of neighbors, teachers, friends, loved ones, family.
The perspective of Save the 2,008—for Healthier High Schools is that, while high schools don't cause teenage despair, nor can they cure it, there is much they can do to make it more bearable, more survivable.
Save the 2,008—for Healthier High Schools is a toolkit of simple improvements to teeenage life in Palo Alto. Far from being a wrecking ball to everything that's right about our schools, we're just six simple steps toward some overdue repairs.
Our goal is to improve the climate of life at Gunn and Paly so that students, during their four years in the developmental crucible of adolescence, suffer far less pressure, fear, and alienation—and feel far more hope, connectedness, and joy in learning.
Six years ago, to nourish hope in themselves and in the community, a sophomore girl and a former teacher launched this campaign—christening it for the number of teenagers and teachers at their hard-hit school, which had recently lost two more students.
Since then, Save the 2,008—for Healthier High Schools has been joined by hundreds of parents, students, alums, teachers, LMFTs and psychologists and psychiatrists, Stanford professors of education and law, engineering and art, faith leaders, drama and music and self-defense instructors, PAMF physicians, realtors, attorneys, and nationally-known authors.
We're a homegrown coalition—a local "start-up" comprised of the 604 people who've added their voices to our Open Letter (see above) as of August 27, 2019.
Not our school personnel but our school regimens, routines, and conditions are inimical to mental health; but we can change this without great ado, perhaps setting an example for secondary education nationwide.
Addressing six, key stressors of high-school life, our initiative proposes to relieve discouragement at Gunn and Paly, by:
1) Shrinking classes to a friendlier size (routinely, they're now at more than 30 teens per room) so that no one feels lost in the crowd, and teachers are more accessible;
2) Giving students a nightly voice in homework loads via a new, confidential, teacher-friendly app that will crunch the numbers on “minutes assigned” and “minutes worked”;
3) Requiring guidance counseling prior to enrollment in multiple APs (which gobble up family time, friendship time, sleep—with far less payoff for college admissions than is supposed);
4) Rescuing our teens from their all-day dependence on social media—by requiring that phones be kept "off," first bell to last (except for instructional use and medical monitoring), and by making campus more companionable;
5) Reining in the relentless grade-reporting—so that our kids, instead of feeling continually under a G.P.A. gun, have time to heal from the normal setbacks and hurts of adolescence;
6) Undoing the misery-inducing cheating (engaged in by a majority of our overburdened students and inimical to mental health).
Mixed together into a toxic cloud that our kids must inhale for four years, these conditions make our high-schoolers feel half a dozen discouragements all at once: invisible in the crowds; lacking empowerment; short on sleep; socially-emotionally distracted; always in competition; ethically unmoored.
In dispersing these conditions we’ll dispel these feelings—opening up breathing room for student-to-teacher connections (ties that can sometimes be lifelines) and for a fresh campus sense of togetherness and trust.
High schools don't cause teenage despair, nor can they cure it; but there's much they can do to make it more bearable, more survivable.
With school and schoolwork central to teenage life—a four-year developmental crucible that possesses us through decades of class reunions—and with the loss of twelve teenagers in eight years, it is past time for comprehensive high-school change in Palo Alto.
At the Open Letter, above, you can add your voice to our chorus of 604 with just the keystrokes of your name.
And that's "all you really need to know" about Save the 2,008—for Healthier High Schools!
Public reception of this campaign: Among our signed supporters are at least 52 parents and grandparents; 24 teachers (from the PAUSD, Girls Middle School, Keys School, Castilleja); 26 therapists, LMFTs, psychologists, and psychiatrists; eight physicians; Stanford professors of education, law, drama, philosophy, classics, art, religious studies, bioengineering, and aeronautics; five local rabbis; four pastors; two homeopathists; attorneys with White and Case, with Cleary, Gottlieb, and with the City of Palo Alto; three Palo Alto realtors, including with Coldwell Banker and Alain Pinel; the co-founder of an outdoor program for home-schooled kids; martial-arts, yoga, music, drama, and soccer instructors; a chief health strategist from Google; a garden manager for Living Classroom; the director of Stanford’s Genome Technology Center; software engineers; venture capitalists; an Academy-Award-winning filmmaker (Gunn, ’84); a senior communications officer for the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health; a Florida psychologist & national expert on suicide intervention; a St. Louis pediatrician & national expert on reducing stress in med schools; the author of Beyond Measure & filmmaker of “Race to Nowhere."
Palo Alto—“ground zero” in our country’s epidemic of high-school stress—can not only grow new hope at Gunn and Paly, but give encouragement to the nation.
Official reception of this campaign: Unwelcomed by most District leaders, Save the 2,008—for Healthier High Schools was represented incorrectly by members of the School Board at our September, 2015 hearing—in a discussion the Superintendent termed "healthy" as he announced that "We will not be returning the plan for discussion or action." Only one board member, Mr. Dauber, spoke well of Save the 2,008, calling it "a gift to the community."
But For Healthier High Schools has now helped to elect two new board members, Jennifer DiBrienza and Told Collins, both of whom have publicly praised this campaign. Right now the board is wrestling with any number of issues, including a budget shortfall, school re-namings, and an Office of Civil Rights agreement—but when the time is ripe Save the 2,008—for Healthier High Schools will seek a second hearing. Start writing your speeches!
Media reception of this campaign: Save the 2,008—for Healthier High Schools has drawn interest and/or coverage from ABC News Nightline, the New York Times, NBC Bay Area, San Francisco Magazine, Vice, Le Monde, Reuters, the Palo Alto Weekly, KPIX-TV, KQED-FM, the Wall St. Journal, the Paly Voice, the Palo Alto Daily Post, Al-Jazeera America, and the Atlantic.
Why six steps? Because many-sided, perpetual problems—such as ours with "student stress”—require many-sided solutions. And because the steps mesh perfectly together, multiplying their effect.
It's no good to open up more one-on-one time in class, for example, if some of it’s wasted in teacher-isn’t-looking, one-on-cellphone time. Likewise it would be cruel to "clamp down" on cheating if we didn’t help to lighten workloads. Too, teachers with less grade-reporting to do, less homework data to gather, will have more breathing room for the tailored, individual tutelage that decreases any need to cheat. Faculty might even have time to make student-affirming, evening phone calls to mothers and fathers—better than grade-reports!—that would be threads in the re-stitching of our schools’ social fabrics.
And it’s wrong to cut kids’ attachments to their phones unless we strengthen their classroom ties and offer them meaningful connections to learning that isn’t cheapened by fraud, isn’t devalued by a continual reminder that it’s all about grades—learning they feel a passion for, learning that lifts their self-esteem.
Why these solutions and not others? The unhealthy working conditions—impersonal classes, unrealistic AP and homework loads, social disconnection, non-stop grading, institutionalized distrust—act as toxic fumes that students must inhale every day.
The problem isn't hard to fix: remove the fumes.
Rather than do so, though, our schools are passing out gas masks— supplying students with "social-emotional curriculum," workshops on stress management, lectures on sleep and mindfulness, referrals to counselors and therapists, wellness teams, and newly required classes.
"Social-emotional" curriculum would seem to make little sense, when we are running our schools in socially and emotionally harmful ways.
A little elaboration: To feel welcome, hopeful, and inspired to learn, a high-schooler wants, above all, "To know my teacher cares about me—sees me as a person." And teachers welcome this charge—but the toxicities of a modern-day high school get in the way.
Workloads, sleep-deprivation, social-media distraction, anxiety and distrust due to rampant cheating, the yearning for recognition (amid an uneasy sense of not belonging)—these trouble our students every schoolday and night, for four developmental and precarious years, weakening healthy ties not only to schoolmates but to those adults who can best help teenagers believe in themselves, rise to challenges, and thrive.
These ties to classroom professionals, too, can sometimes be lifelines. So many of us once had a teacher who saw our potential and helped "see us through." (Ringo Starr's first drum-set, brought to his hospital bed, was a gift from a schoolteacher.)
A deeper level of detail: Over the years, as we've looked on from a distance, our high schools have inadvertently given way to larger class-sizes, larger helpings of homework (unchecked by good communication), more enrollment in APs (unchecked by good consultation), more distraction from social media, more grade-reporting, more cheating—all spewing together into an elusive, toxic cloud.
To let in life-giving fresh air, Save the 2,008—for Healthier High Schools proposes to:
1. Shrink the largest classes to a friendlier size, creating a closer feeling between classmates as well as stronger teacher-student ties (which can sometimes be lifelines). Of all the ways to ease campus pressure, this is the most powerful, because it's the teacher's attention that makes each individual student feel recognized, welcomed, and inspired to learn. When school life is stressful, changing the teacher-student ratio has the same transformative effect as lowering control rods into an overheated reactor core. And one-on-one attention is the very definition of "differentiated instruction."
2. Moderate homework in the most accountable, state-of-the-art way—through giving students a nightly online voice. Create a confidential school website—anonymity guaranteed, use optional, built by our own whiz-kids—that will give our teenagers input into their workloads, as well as enable teachers to shield their kids from pile-ups of simultaneous tests, projects, essays. As it is, we have a homework policy, but no user-friendly tool to make it work. But we can easily monitor and moderate homework in the most direct way: via healthier student-teacher, and teacher-teacher, communication.
3. Foster wiser family decisions about AP course loads through timely meetings among parents, kids, and school guidance counselors. The latter can speak wisely to the emotional nourishment of sleep, time with peers, family time, downtime, cultural time, exercise, and playtime, can testify to the wide availability of admissions to scores of excellent colleges nationwide, and can put the role (less than most people have been told) of APs in admissions into perspective. This would be no "red light"; after the conversation, families could opt for as many APs as they like. This is simply a flashing yellow light—but in a communicative, personal way that's more meaningful than just filling out forms. Counselors can see and respond to family dynamics, and can talk things over with kids and parents making an important decision.
4. Protect our kids from the siren song of their phones. Inevitably, this an issue that everyone has strong feelings about, but let's require our students to leave their phones turned off, first bell to last (except for instructional use and medical monitoring). Emergencies can readily be taken care of via the many classroom phones, office phones, intercoms, and walkie-talkies on campus. Even at high schools that forbid phone use in class, studies tell us, 60% of students are on them surreptitiously, and surely distracted learning is as unhealthy as distracted driving, especially for teens. A 2015 study by the London School of Economics showed that, when phone-use was ended on school campuses, student grades rose by 6.4% (14% for underachieving kids). A ban on phone-use will enrich campus life with a sense of here-and-now connection, protect students from being bullied while at school, help kids to focus on their studies, relieve teachers of tiresome policing, eliminate a common tool for cheating, and will simply extend the policy at all three of Palo Alto's middle schools.
5. Slow the relentless grade-reporting so our kids have room to ride out the ups and downs of adolescence. No teenager who’s holding on through a parental divorce or through rejection by a friend should have to live under a G.P.A. gun every day. Adolescents, already laboring hard in the workshop of identity, need intervals to coast a bit and heal. (And how would any grown-up feel about getting a workplace performance-review every three weeks?)
6. End the anxious, debilitating climate of cheating—the demoralizing atmosphere that kids feel obliged to inhale, just to run the race of school. Made necessary by outsized workloads, enabled not only by cheating rings and groups but by too many parents, academic fraud erodes so much self-esteem and stirs up so much anxiety—with every project, paper, test—that it's a serious issue of mental well-being.
For a deeper dive into how and why these steps will alleviate feelings of stress and depression, click on "Our Plan in Full," above.)
A little philosophy: Save the 2,008—for Healthier Schools believes that teachers and students are the essence of school, and that the thread of gold between teachers and students is caring.
On one side this care is expressed by well-thought-through lessons, homework swiftly returned, eye-contact and hands-called-on during class, a growing reservoir of teaching skills and subject knowledge, glances that say, “I see you” and “I hear you,” fair grades and accurate roll-call, patient listening, a classroom Lost & Found, and a readiness to champion each child.
On the other side, the caring is felt and received if the child feels safe and present in class (both emotionally and intellectually); isn’t distracted, sleep-deprived, or troubled by a school environment of taunts, distrust, or facelessness; and isn’t raising his or her hand out of fear for a grade but in excitement over a sudden, wonderful insight.
When teachers can express their caring, and when students can spin that caring into their own fabric of gold, the school is more than good enough.
Our ideas are sound and well laid-out. As in all grassroots campaigns, everything depends, now, on growing our strength in numbers.
The high-schooler and the former teacher who founded Save the 2,008—for Healthier Schools (Gunn student Martha Cabot and English teacher Marc Vincenti) hope that many, many people—wishing profoundly for a less stressful, less depressing life for our kids—will find a home for their feelings in this community effort.
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"Community efforts like Save the 2,008 are lifting the cover off the pressure cooker to rescue the children within. While the initiative is local, it is a message to be embraced by schools across the country."
— Vicki Abeles
(filmmaker, "Race to
your comments at our Facebook site—where you'll also find oodles of updates, news, articles, and reviews.
"Save the 2,008 is an example of grassroots activism in support of sanity that I
hope students, parents, and educators around the
country will imitate."
- Alfie Kohn (writer-educator,
The Homework Myth)
"I like the grassroots nature of Save the 2,008 and most of all its ability to focus some attention on practical, tactical ways to address the stress and strain our
- Julie Lythcott-Haims
(How to Raise an Adult)
"Save the 2,008 reminds us that successful schools not only foster learning, but
also support students'
emotional well-being "
- Richard Freed
(author of Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in
a Digital Age)
Your gift of $10, $15, $25 or more will go to ad space, posters, the occasional student assistant we hire, and the next newspaper-printing of our Open Letter. We'll confirm your donation
and won't waste a penny!
"I appreciate the grassroots effort of Save the 2,008, which has been out in front in the conversation about class-size, homework, grading, and a
more connected climate in our
high schools. These are
priorities that I share. "
- Jennifer DiBrienza
(Palo Alto school board member)
"I applaud the Save the 2,008's community spirit and share their desire to improve the well-being of our high-schoolers through some simple nuts-and-bolts reforms -- creating stronger campus ties, a more vibrant environment, and a deeper
sense of belonging. "
- Todd Collins
(Palo Alto school board
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