Newton Suicides: Is High-Achiever School Culture Breaking Our Kids?

Nearly 400 parents attended a community forum on teen suicide at Newton South High School. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Nearly 400 parents attended a community forum on teen suicide at Newton South High School. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Dr. Gonzalo Bacigalupe is the president of the American Family Therapy Academy and a professor in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He’s also a Newton dad, and writes here about the need to address the toxic effects of high-stress school culture and its possible role in recent teen suicides.

In Newton there have been three suicides in less than four months among our high school kids. To us, it feels like an epidemic. In general, the response of the school system has been to provide grief counselors plus meetings to air the sadness and share what the school is doing or plans to do in the future. Experts talk about suicide and psychological problems; they tell us, parents, what we already know: support your kids and be mindful of their mood and behaviors. The message: this is either a mental health problem or a parental issue.

But the school system is not taking responsibility for the stress the kids feel day after day because of the tremendous pressure the Newton high school culture exerts to achieve academically, participate in multiple extracurricular activities, and/or play competitive sports — never just for fun, always to score the best.

Of course, some students put pressure on themselves, and some feel pressure from their parents and peers. But the school system must hold itself accountable for the pressure it puts on its students.

The official message accepts this situation as an individual or family problem, rather than part of a collective narrowness and craze about achievement.

“Who could ever imagine that we’d be back here again under similar circumstances?” asked Newton Public Schools Superintendent David Fleishman Tuesday night as he welcomed nearly 400 parents to another community forum on teen suicide.

In the fall of 2013, some of us did tell him that this could happen again if systemic measures were not taken. I personally wrote him a long letter and forwarded the message to the principal of Newton South High School. In response, I received a thank-you note in which promises were made about the school doing more to support our children.

So just what is the culture of Newton’s public high schools? Despite the communal expressions of grief, this past Monday, the day of the funeral of Roee Grutman, many of his classmates, friends and acquaintances (this is a small high school) did not participate in this important event because most of the school kept all academic activities unchanged, including, for example, mid-year exams.

Despite the message to teachers about allowing students to miss classes, some teachers conducted business as usual. Many students may not have felt free to stand their ground and attend the funeral. They were deprived of participating in a collective healing that cannot be replaced by a session with a school counselor or a mental health practitioner. I know this; I am a psychologist, a family therapist, a public health researcher and a specialist in trauma response.

More generally, kids have so much homework that they don’t have any time to have fun or just chill. The teachers tell parents that the homework should not take more than 30-60 minutes per class, but in reality, work for a single class can take three or more hours. As a result, the kids go to bed extremely late and have to get up extremely early.

The culture of staying up late to study is one of the first things upper-class students tell the younger ones to prepare for. Their senior peers tell them that if they don’t stay up late, they will not perform well.

The teens don’t have time to socialize, to be around their peers, to enjoy family activities. As a result, the whole family feels inadequate. The schools create a context that the research evidence suggests is dangerous to adolescents’ well-being and academic achievement — the presumable goal of the whole system.

Lack of sleep can lead to depression and other serious illnesses. For most of the kids, the feeling is of inadequacy, of never being enough, of never being able to catch up, in a perennial, self-reinforcing process.

According to the latest world educational measures,

 the commonwealth of Massachusetts is rated within the top five highest in the world. Those are averages; it means that in Newton, the scores are much higher. But despite being extremely competitive internationally, the majority of the teens I’ve spoken with in Newton’s high schools feel inadequate and not as bright as the top achievers.

As the years pass, the weekends become study marathons; parents hire tutors and have to deal with irritable adolescents who — particularly the boys — cannot voice what torments them. Many parents are probably also feeling inadequate: If my child’s classmate is going to an Ivy League university or is getting a full sport scholarship, then there must be something wrong in what I am doing, because I have not helped my son achieve as much as the top 10 percent.

Parents are probably the most under-utilized resources in the school system.

One of the experts commented condescendingly in Tuesday’s meeting that suicides are not infectious. Well, they are not infectious diseases in the traditional medical sense, but the question of why suicides repeat is eloquently explained in a recent column citing research: “Suicides happen in clusters, with one person’s suicide influencing the other’s.”

We are devastated. The death of a child is the most devastating situation that any parent could face. My wife and I feel a tremendous sadness for the parents of these three teenagers, the same age as our son. But I am also very angry at the lack of collective response beyond grief and sadness. The official message appears again to continue accepting this situation as an individual or family problem, rather than part of a collective narrowness and craze about achievement.

What can the school system do besides offering crisis intervention and post-trauma counseling?

Families and parents should be invited to provide their views on the impact that the schools have on their children, via open meetings as well as anonymously via online surveys and focus groups. In almost two decades that I’ve observed the school system, I’ve seen that parents are not regularly asked for their input. More opportunities for parents to interact meaningfully rather than just hold speed interviews with teachers once or twice a year could be valuable.

Connecting school and families in more than informational meetings is not a regular practice. The school could also solicit help from the rich expertise among parents, as many communities with high-achieving students do. This is a town with high levels of expertise in so many professional and academic fields. Parents are probably the most underutilized resources in the school system. We are the most invested in the health of our children but often feel outside the decision-making process and treated with condescension. We are here to help. Maybe it is time for our town to join forces with us.

Raising and educating our children cannot be all about getting them into the best school that their SAT scores will allow. Newton’s self-congratulatory stance about its school system cannot stop us from demanding more accountability; we should be the first to stand up and stop this nonsense. If we are to have a great education in our town, we must rethink what it means to educate healthy and thriving people. No high-achievement culture can come at the cost of our beloved children’s lives.

Readers, do you agree that the Newton school culture may be toxic, and more must be done to address that? If so, what?

Further listening: Stress and Consequences for American Teens (On Point)

Further reading: Preventing Suicide: A Toolkit for High Schools

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  • Quinn

    Also, as a formerly depressed and suicidal teenager that cut and dealt with eating disorders, I think something that everyone should focus on is helping those struggling with perspective. The one thing that saved me was my mom. Seeing her worry or crying because she thought she would lose me one day really brought my dark thoughts to reality. Although I did not want to live my life, I couldn’t bear the thought that I was causing my mom so much pain. I guess what I am trying to say is if you have a friend, sibling, or child that you think is struggling then make sure you tell them how much you love them. Make sure they know without a doubt that you will be devastated without them and the world will be affected. They need to know they matter. It worked for me, maybe it will work for others.

  • Quinn

    This academic is fairly common in all high schools, not just Newton. In addition, the pressures in high school academically are not even comparable to those in college. High schools are just preparing students for their future education environments because if they don’t then kids will get to college and feel even more overwhelmed and incapable. The issue is not simply Newton high schools, it is the culture of America.

  • Neil P

    BTW – another mental health profession thinks to the contrary ie. high achieving cultures in fact protect children from suicides.
    Go to 5:10 marker
    http://www.wcvb.com/chronicle/three-teen-suicides-rock-newton/25194468#!BGvFh

  • bacigalupe

    Today’s letter to parents and students reflect a change in the tone. This is hopeful and a good start and acknowledgment that we can do better. See excerpt below:

    With registration upon us, we would like to take this opportunity to urge students and families to consider balance and a healthy lifestyle as they select courses for next year. To help manage the stresses of an academic environment, we recommend that students consider the following questions with parents, teachers and counselors as they prepare to register for courses:

    What are the courses I would like to take this coming year?
    What are the courses I would like to take over the course of four years of high school?
    What are my commitments to extracurricular school activities?
    What are my commitments outside of school?
    What are my plans for physical activity and creative endeavor?
    Once these are considered, the question becomes: how much time is left for both a reasonable amount of sleep and a reasonable amount of downtime to connect with friends and family? These last two should be considered as separate entities of great importance to a balanced lifestyle. If there is insufficient time left for either of these items, then we strongly recommend reprioritizing courses and/or participation in various activities in order to create an appropriate balance.

    We ask that students and parents have these conversations at home, and that teachers and guidance counselors have these conversations with students in school. We believe it is entirely appropriate for the adults in a student’s life to say no to a student’s plans if they are not in the best interest of the student’s health and wellbeing. We believe that together, parents and teachers can help students make healthy, appropriate choices.

  • patricia

    Parents are powerful and if they think academic achievement is the most important thing in life, the kids will get it. I told my sons that I did not care how they did on the
    MCAS and I did not. I thought it was ridiculous to stress out third graders. Also told then it was more important who you marry in life than what college you attend. Further, since it was evident they were not going Ivy League, stop worrying. I would not allow them to take any AP classes in subjects they disliked. Finally, I frequently
    played the Queen song “Pressure” to illustrate what I thought of this road to nowhere.

  • Inessa Rifkin

    To put it simply, this article is very damaging to Roee’s mother right now. Yes, we are all hurting, but let’s not forget who is hurting the most, who is questioning herself the most and who has to find the strength to go on with life. Roee’s family is a wonderful, loving family, where kids are at the center of family life, where they are all very close and very supportive of each other. Roee’s mother is a paragon for all of us. What happened is a tragedy. And let’s not forget that no one knows the reason behind it. It seems to me that people are just losing their sensitivity. They are so afraid for their own children that they are completely forgetting their boundaries. Our duty as a community is to first of all make sure that Roee’s family feels our love and support. They deserve it. As a professional, the writer of this article should know that these things happen among adolescents of all cultures and societies. To use this family tragedy to push someone’s veiw of life is not thoughtful in my opinion. We all can discuss our points of view in 6 months. But let’s give the Grutmans the time to heal, they deserve it. They did not do anything wrong. On the contrary, there are an example for all of us of a wonderful family with exceptional family values.

  • northstudent

    I graduated from North last year, so have almost completed my first year of college. I honestly feel as though the most pressure came from myself and my peers. I always acknowledged that the Newton school system is designed to help students succeed in college, but now that I’m actually here I realize that high school was not nearly as stressful as college is now. The only thing North did not teach me well was time management. Yes, I would be up for hours doing homework, but that was because I decided not to start until late and would procrastinate a lot. I agree that there is always pressure to do better, but unless you have decided to take all honors and AP courses, there should never be too much for you to get done by a decent hour. There are only two things that I believe Newton could improve on; one being teaching students how to manage their time better, and two, encouraging the student to do what they believe is best gor them, not for the school or their peers.

  • Hans Rosenschwein

    In the mid 1970′s in my high achieving school district in suburban Philadelphia, we had 6-9 suicides per year, each year I was in high school. This included the president of my brother’s class, a homecoming queen and several star athletes, along with some more troubled kids. However the majority of them were fairly nondescript kids. In all cases friends, family and teachers claimed they didn’t see it coming. A few kids left notes. Those that did said they no longer wanted to live due to relationship problems or failure to live up to parents expectations. Most did not leave notes. The accepted explanation at the time was the same as it is today – that we were under too much pressure to succeed, to get good grades, to get into good colleges, to excel at extracurricular activities and to hold down jobs to help pay for college. Remember this was at a time when it was not uncommon for kids to be beaten for bad grades, when there was no financial aid so academic scholarships were the only way most kids could hope to go to a good school and nearly all kids had jobs. And there was actually real discipline in school so no bullshit was tolerated by the teachers and administration.

    Nothing changes. Some people can handle stress, some people can’t. Nobody really knows why a person decides to take their own life. Amongst teenagers suicides tend to occur in clusters because teens consciously or unconsciously copy suicidal behavior. There is no question that that was going on in my school.

    You cannot blame the school or teachers for stresses on your high school student. You are the parent and you are in the best position to know what your child can and cannot withstand. You are the one who has the obligation to step in and say, “Enough.” Your child cannot be forced to take a certain number, or any AP classes. You can take the AP exams without taking AP classes. My daughter did on some of them and got 4′s and 5′s on them. You do not need to apply to more than 6 or 7 colleges. In fact it is counterproductive to do so. You should sit down with your kid every few months and review their schedule of activities, work and school work and make sure that they have a healthy balance. You should make sure that YOU are not putting unnecessary pressure on them.

    My daughter excelled all through high school – straight A’s; AP classes and exams with top scores; pre-professional ballet training 6 days a week and all summer; work as an intern a college biochemistry lab. She graduated #5 in her class of 435. When in came time to apply to college, we told her she could apply anywhere she wanted. She (and we) did not want her to apply close to home (we want her out of the south), but anywhere else in the world was fine – with her grades and test scores she could have gotten in anywhere. She said she did not want to spend the next 4 years killing herself to prove everyday that she was as smart as or smarter than everyone else in the class – so she was not going to apply to any of the Ivies or high pressure schools. Instead she applied to good schools that have excellent biochemistry programs and are geographically located in places she would enjoy living for four years. She got into all of them.

    She is now in her second semester at the University of Colorado, majoring in biochemistry. She has a job at in a top biochemistry lab and is working directly with post-docs. She goes skiing every weekend. She has dozens of new, good friends. There is no competitiveness among her friends. The air is clean, everyone is healthy and loves to be outdoors and active. She is still a straight A student. She is making excellent connections with people in her desired field. Everytime I talk to her she says, “I can’t believe I was considering going to Cornell or Brown.”

    The pressure isn’t necessary. Back off and let your kids know it’s okay to back off.

  • Joanna Loren Watson

    A major part of the problem, I think, is the parents’ own needs for accomplishment and high achievement. They project this onto their children — they see no other possible, respectable way of being. It is not enough for them to try to be good people, to teach their children to be good people. They don’t know how to just “be”. They need to push themselves and everyone around them all the time. The problem now is that the competition to stay in the upper echelon of our society is becoming greater and greater, so our children are having to achieve more and work much harder to reach the level of status, wealth and accomplishment than we did — the standards have gotten higher, but it has become much harder to achieve what the parents have.

    What we REALLY need to do is to reevaluate what we consider to be “success” — why are we doing what we do — why are we insisting that our children do the same? Why are we teaching our children that our love and respect hinges on what they accomplish? With global warming, increasing gaps between the rich and poor, and with so many other things wrong in the world, WHY are we teaching our children the same things we learned?

    We don’t need to be in the “1 %” to be okay with ourselves, do we? Is it okay that most teenage girls in Newton and other cities like it have eating disorders? AREN’T WE TRYING TO CHANGE THINGS?? Surely there is enough brain power, enlightenment and courage in Newton to stop and think, to just perhaps love our children the way they are.

    • Lauren Berman

      I agree that standards should be altered (not lowered). I don’t think that most teenage girls in Newton and in other similar cities have eating disorders..

    • Neil P

      I am one of those parents who had made it to a comfortable,but not 1% lifestyle. I consequently push my son to try his hardest, so he can achieve what his is capable of.

      I respectfully disagree with your thesis of lowering one’s standards. Two reasons I justify otherwise a difficult decision of pushing my son is… Average is just not good enough. Look at where the “average” jobs are these day..all outsourced to China and India.
      But more importantly, if he does not develop a work ethic now, when else? I cannot control his self-motivation, but I can help him develop a work ethic.

      I am sure I contribute to my son’s stress, but then I also coach him to say no and help manage it. Stress is part of life, and one better understand how to manage to one best abilities. I work and answer my emails on weekend, its a choice. I know this contributes to stress for me, but then I would rather push myself.

      Happy to hear others thoughts and opinions to the contrary. Again this is a difficult decision to push my son, but I do it for his own sake NOT for mine.

      PS – This was not meant to offend anyone, but rather a candid input into this debate.

  • David Seaman

    My qualifications: I lived in Newton, I am a teacher who has taught in a top ten system (MCAS scores) and a mid-rate school. The only difference is economic. I have a PhD but mostly I am good. A 1999 finalist for Mass teacher of the year named 8 times to Who’s Who in America’s Teachers, it is my philosophy that every single student must be treated as an individual, as though she or he has a 504 plan. I have been removed from the classroom by a severe neuromuscular5 disease that has rendered me an invalid. A large part of how I taught high school students had to do with HOW to manage the sometimes overwhelming amount of work. One of the young women below taking all honors and AP classes spends thirty minutes a night on her work. This is a choice she makes.For her to suggest this choice is good for others is, if she’ll pardon me, ignorant. We are all different.
    But any teacher who asigns homework who doesn’t tehn collect it and scrutinize it neeeds to be dismissed.(I am apalled to read of the same young woman who said the teacher merely looks to see if there is writing on the page). I teach Fine Arts. This was bliss because if you’re teaching music and theatre most of the faculty and administration leaves you alone (as do the politicians) so that I really was able to do a LOT more teaching than many other teachers.Think about it. Music in culture, I taughyt the Cold War, 1968 Democratic Convention, The French Revolution, you name an important issue and I’ll find a song to match it. Gun control” Sondheim’s “The Gun Song” from Assassins. History of pop music and culture? “American Pie.” I taught people and used music to do it. If the choir was singing a piece from Randall Thompson’s “Frostiana” and I assigned a poetry analysis paper on “Choose Something like A Star” (Robert Frost, 1944) I not only taught them how to write (I was more strict about Strunk and White than their English teacher) but I spent EASILY as much time on each of the 153 papers as the student did to write it.I taughyt them brevity. Their papers were not6 allowed to exceed 2000 words or 1500 words yet they still had to make their point. Homework that is busy work is an insult; I told my students this and I told them ways in which to get around it, make it easy. You all should know that 98% of our top achieving students have discovered short cuts that do not affect their learning and do include what many of us would call “cheating.” I applaud them.
    The intense pressure that is on the students comes from everywhere. The students do it to themselves; the teachers do it because administrators and politicians have been telling us we’re failures for decades now, culture is pressing them but most of all, in a school such as Newton South or Westborough High School it is “cool” to be taking four AP classes. I taught AP Music Theory to a class of six students and every one of them got a 5. They demanded it of themselves. I NEVER taught to a test, even when, in the mid school system, we were told to do so. I believe the standards I was teaching were much higher than the MCAS and SAT’s.
    It’s easy for one student to criticize another who applies to more than 8 or 10 colleges. Again, every student is diferent. My daiughter, who is now an employed actress, needed to apply to nearly twenty school because a specific Fine Arts program for one University may well on;ly be accepting rive students. Lighten up: Again, the consistency is trying to catagorize all students under one umbrella. They are individuals.
    The important thing I did was to be reasonable. If a student doesn’t hit a deadline I didn;t make a scene.I didn;t take off points.(Grad4es are so subjective- even ludicrous) I had a “reading list” on the white board to which I added books, recordings and plays. At one point a freshman girl, not yet knowing me, said, “How are we supposed to read ALL these books?”( I had just asked them to compare “Gone With The Wind” written in the South in 1935 to “The Color Purple” written ABOUT the south in 1935.)
    “Dear” I said, “You have your entire life to finish this reading list.” We talked a great deal about how school- and my goal- was to teach life-long learning. Since, at any time, my students would talk to me about how they were affected by a book, piece of music or play and because I encouraged creative writing that I always responded to, I was very aware that the students were under intense stress- an intensity that has increased substantially in the past twenty years. it’s a trend and every student parent and teacher is different. Individuality merans they get attention.
    The advise I have is that it is incredibly important to be overzealous about medical care for our children. Not just physical care but emotional care. It would not at all be a waste of effeort or time for every single student to be given his/her own therapist. Once a weeek, fifty minutes that belongs solely to him: like a guest on a talk show who doesn;t have to move over for Joan Embrey and a chimp; therapy and counseling is having fifty precious minutes a week where a trained professional focuses on your needs. THIS is the most important element of a child’s upbringing. It is a screen9ing for possible problems; it is a safety net; it is a way to make a child KNOW that he is special.
    In all three of the high schools in which I taught, I became a “go to” teacher. Students were always confiding in me. I did the job that a well staffed guidance department would do and I was not always qualified to do it. Many times my referals to another “appropriate” person ended in disaster. The most important thing about our teenagers is that they are given as much attention as possible. Remember that the reason it is said that boys are easier than girls is because Boys have been trained to keep their problems to themselves. Put your teen behind the wheel of a car and this is an excellent place to engage him or her in concersation. Treat your teen more like an adult and he or she will confide in you. This is not JUST Newton. Look at that stupid MCAS rating list and every one of the top 25 schools on the standardized testing schools are the same. 26 through 142 are having the same problem but in addition they face the problems of poverty. Treat each student as an individual and treat him with respect. I realize I’ve gone on a long time, but let me finish with a lyric by Stephen Sondheim:
    “Careful the things you say
    Children will listen
    careful the things you do;
    children we see and learn.
    Children may not obey but children will listen.
    Children will look to you
    for which way to turn
    to learn what to be.
    Careful before you say, “listen to me.”
    Children will listen”
    – Stephen Sondheim, “Into The oods” 1985

  • Patrick Singleton

    Are there any data available to buttress this argument that pressure at Newton high schools played a role in the suicides over the past months? As I read this essay, I don’t see any evidence of a link.

    Three adolescents made tragic mistakes by choosing to end their own lives. There might be some intuitive appeal to speculation that academic or social pressures played roles in their decisions, but we will never know that. Perhaps their grieving families have their own insights, but all we can know is that every person’s life is complicated, and no death is simple.

    It’s fair to wonder if Newton schools could be healthier environments for the broad range of students in their care. It’s fair to say that six hours of homework is too much, particularly if every student in the class is spending that amount of time on the work. It’s fair to say the schools should welcome parent involvement. In my experience, those conversations go on at Newton schools.

    This is a bit of a small point, but what would the writer suggest for the day of a student’s funeral, beyond suggesting that students talk to their teachers about missing class? Cancelling school might well have brought a flood of students to the service — South, with enrollment over 1,700, is not a “small high school.” Does the writer know that the boy’s friends were not accommodated by the school somehow?

  • bacigalupe

    Thanks to all the extraordinary responses and thoughful comments. Looking forward to your thoughts on a second column coming soon. Even those who disagree or even misread some of my thoughts are sharing important ideas. Similarly, I am thankful to those who wrote me personal notes. Clearly, a conversation is needed.

  • Neil P

    I have a factual question re: Dr. Bacigalupe’s data source – He refers to ” world educational measures” and says Massachusett rants in top 5 in the world. I went to the link and it does NOT support the claim – Here is the text

    “Among the 34 OECD countries, the United States performed below average in mathematics in 2012 and is ranked 26th. Performance in reading and science are both close to the OECD average. The United States ranks 17 in reading,
    and 21 in science . There has been no significant change in these
    performances over time.

    • Mathematics scores for the top-performer, Shanghai-China, indicate a performance that is the equivalent of over two years of formal schooling ahead of those observed in Massachusetts, itself a strong-performing U.S. state.”

    All this is telling me is despite the $ and the stress, we are mediocre at the best!

  • Newton South Graduate

    I graduated from Newton South last year and am shocked by the recent suicides. My deepest condolences go out to the families of those who have passed away. While at Newton South, I took almost all AP classes, played two varsity sports and participated in lots of clubs. In Newton, there is a lot of pressure to succeed and get into top colleges, but this pressure is not the fault of the Newton school system. Our
    students are competing with the rest of the world to get into good colleges. Blaming
    the Newton schools alone for creating a stressful work atmosphere
    oversimplifies the problem. Personally, I prefer an atmosphere that pushes me
    to succeed rather than strives for mediocre achievement. The culture of high
    achievement at Newton South made me challenge myself, and I am much better
    prepared for my college workload and my future career because of it. The teen
    suicides in Newton are tragic, but blaming the premature deaths on Newton’s competitive atmosphere is not the solution.

    • ElliFrank

      It is interesting to me that so many students and parents have misinterpreted the author’s article as a call to lower standards and discourage students from doing their best. That is not what he or many other responses below are saying at all.

      You express shock at the three high school suicides that have happened in the last 6 months. Yet you are arguing that nothing should change. What many of us are trying to suggest is that there IS a need to have a collaborative, inclusive examination of what is not working within our community, including the school community. This is not the same thing as placing blame, but it is a call for all of us — students, parents, teachers, all other school employees, and other community stakeholders — to come together to examine how to promote the health and well being of the children and teens in our community. That, in fact, will promote excellent standards for education AND lives well lived.

      I think the worst thing we can do right now is to use fear, denial, a lack of curiosity, or resistance to change as a reason to move forward blindly, as if these three high school students had not died.

    • NutshellsGuy

      You miss the point. Overloading students reduces their level of achievement and success. It does not increase the chances of success. This is discussed much in several other posts and responses below.

  • nnhs013grad

    I’m a recent NNHS grad, and though I can attest to the fact that it is a high-pressure environment, I think it’s unreasonable to be blaming the NPS system for creating that pressure. During my junior and senior years of high school, I had three close friends who attempted suicide (thankfully, none were successful), and all have now gone on to college. Stress from school was a contributing factor to their drastic actions, but the far more pressing issues were social — friend disputes and nastiness rather than academic competition.

    And on that note, I think it’s safe to say that the competition and pressure comes much more from peers and parents than it does from teachers and the school system. Like many other grads who commented, I never felt any undue pressure to go to Ivies and to take all APs.

    I think the most important thing is to teach kids that it’s okay to say no. I took several APs, captained a varsity sport, and had a job. But I had other teachers suggest additional APs, I had people ask me to help volunteer, and I had nights when it seemed like I had just too much homework. So I learned to prioritize. I said no to the APs that didn’t interest me and would have increased my stress (and I never had a teacher who seemed to think less of me for opting out), said no to time commitments that would have overreached me, and when it got to the point where my options were to finish a non-essential homework assignment or go to bed, I got enough sleep.

    When kids stop continuously comparing themselves to each other and focus on what’s best for them, the overall environment will be healthier. I found Newton North to be a great school that prepared me extraordinarily well for college and allowed me to explore my interests and hobbies in extracurriculars. I’m now at a good school and very happy, and hoping that my town is able to heal from the string of recent tragedies.

    • Lauren Berman

      I agree with what you’ve said. I also think it’s important to communicate to kids that it’s normal to be flawed, and that we don’t expect, want, or need them to be perfect. Of course, these can’t just be hollow words that we mouth, we first have to embrace this belief ourselves.

  • NewtonIsForSelfEntitledIdiots

    I had the misfortune of living in Newton for more years than I would have liked, and my children attended the public schools. The problem is NOT “school culture.” It is PARENTS and the values and attitudes that they impart to their children. Teachers and administrators try to fulfill the requirements of self-entitled, arrogant, my-poor-baby Newton parents. Fact: when my oldest child was in 4th grade, I was waiting outside a classroom for a parent-teacher conference. The father in the room insisted on knowing whether his child was “the best” in the class. Fact: I had an acquaintance who, when we met for coffee one weekend, told me that she and her husband were meeting later that day with a college counselor to discuss “maximizing Irving’s (not his real name) chances for Yale.” Irving was a freshman. When I reported this to my own kids, one of them said, “But if they keep telling him it’s so important, how will he feel if he doesn’t get in?” Fact: when kids can’t hand in their work on time, the parents tell the teachers that Precious has an anxiety disorder that requires the teacher to accommodate Precious by allowing him/her to hand in late work without penalty. I can only imagine how Precious is gong to cope with the real world when he/she/it isn’t accommodated by employers who need to see the work ON TIME. Fact: one of my children returned from middle school one day and was very upset because one of her friends had been criticized by a self-entitled little toad because the friend, who was from another country, “buys her clothes at Sears.” First of all, she did not. Secondly, even if she did, what difference would it have made? These are the attitudes and actions that affect kids in Newton, not the teachers.

    • kMeansWhat

      haha, I am trying really hard not to respond with, ‘U MAD BRO?’

      More seriously, there is certainly an above average sense of entitlement in Newton; however, taking your 4 facts, and describing the whole population of Newton (some 70K people) as ‘vile’ is a giant overstatement which is neither productive nor accurate. In some ways, people in Newton are better than average, in some ways, they are worse. Let’s try to acknowledge the fact that people are complex.

      • NewtonIsForSelfEntitledIdiots

        Those facts are merely representative of hundreds of events over the
        years; I’m not quite so silly as to base my opinion on a few
        occurrences. The sense of me-me-me and sheer arrogance that
        pervades Newton is truly overwhelming. There’s a reason that
        stereotypes exist – it’s because they’re based on the hard truth. Yes,
        people are complex. And yes, there are some decent folks there – but
        they’re a tiny minority. There are many other towns where the gestalt
        is not “me first, I’m better, kids have failed if they don’t get into
        an Ivy, I need a really big house, get out of my way.” My kids
        absolutely blossomed after leaving, and I don’t think it’s even remotely
        a coincidence.

        • kMeansWhat

          First:

          “There’s a reason that stereotypes exist – it’s because they’re based on the hard truth”

          You might want to think about whether this a statement you actually believe, and how you feel about certain racial and ethnic stereotypes.

          I am sorry that you and your kids had a bad time, but, shockingly, there are many people who are happy living in Newton. In addition, a large slice of the population is made up of doctors, engineers, and professors: people who spend their daily lives healing and teaching people, and improving the world we live in. More so than almost any other part of the country. I acknowledge that you clearly have some personal baggage, which colors your opinion, but thinking that you can write off over 70 thousand people( give or take a ‘tiny minority’) is arrogant and does a disservice to many people you have never met or gotten to know.

          • NewtonIsForSelfEntitledIdiots

            I am glad you like it there and that your own personal baggage fits nicely in the overhead bin there. To each his/her/its own. Ideally, your children like it there and are not among the 65% of students whom the guidance counselor told us (at a public parents’ meeting) were in therapy – obviously, because they are so well-adjusted.

          • kMeansWhat

            Well, I graduated a couple years ago, and did like it there, though I am in school elsewhere now. I am not saying it is perfect by any means, just not only populated by vile people.

            Also, I was not in therapy, but there is nothing wrong with being in therapy, and needing help sometimes does not mean you are not well-adjusted. That type of attitude contributes to these mental health problems.

    • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

      Middle schoolers are evil. That’s not a Newton thing. It’s universal. Girls are bad in 5th and 6th grade and boys are bad in 6th and 7th grade. It’s just the age.

  • ElliFrank

    Whether all the posters responding to Dr. Bacigalupe’s article here agree with him or not, one thing has become clear in this comments section: in the aftermath of three tragic student suicides in Newton during a short six-month period, many in our community want and need a place to discuss our feelings, concerns, opinions, and suggested solutions in response to these events.

    While I am grateful to Dr. Bacigalupe for writing the blog entry that has created the opportunity on WBUR’s CommonHealth website for a virtual town common where students, parents, teachers, and other community members are coming together to have this discussion, it has become even more striking that the Newton Public Schools and City of Newton have not been responding to this need. And I’m not writing this to bash anyone, but to point out an important need which is not being met, and a critical opportunity which is being missed.

    Newton’s response to crises in our community is generally to hold a one-time, emergency response-type meeting in the evening soon after the crisis. There is generally some expert guidance provided on how to talk to your kids about the problem, reassurances that the City is doing everything it can, promises about steps that will be taken to change things, and a brief Q&A period. Counselors are sent to the school which have been most immediately impacted by the crisis.

    Then it’s all over and everyone is expected to pick up and move on as if nothing every happened. There is never any follow up. No systemic problems are ever addressed.

    When you keep doing the same thing over and over again in response to a problem, but the outcomes don’t change, it’s time to wake up and do something different.

    Again, regardless of your opinion of Dr. Bacigalupe’s article here, what’s clear is that Newton’s current pattern of responding does not lead to constructive changes with measurable outcomes. There is clearly no place where we can share, gather, and process input from the key stakeholders in our community — our kids, families, and school employees (including everyone from the teachers to custodians, specialists to school office staff, librarians to administrators, etc.). There is no space for adults to listen to our young people and hear what some of them are sharing here. Or for parents’ voices to really be heard. There is no space where we can collectively look at the systemic problems facing our kids and teens, and discuss them with mutual respect in an honest attempt to address the sources of toxic stress which can drive some students over the edge to suicide.

    Again, regardless of our individual perspectives on the article above, if we really want to see any measurable changes in our community and promote greater physical and mental health among all of our stakeholders, we need to try some different.

    At very least, I’d love to see the NPS and City of Newton invest in a process that explores these systemic problems in an inclusive, collaborative, and meaningful way. We’d need competent, objective facilitators whose agenda is NOT set by any one stakeholder group. (These facilitators could NOT be from the NPS’ pool of employees or consultants.) I’d love to see the process start with a series of confidential “listening meetings” for each of the different stakeholder groups. This would really need to be an open process, where everyone was welcome at the table, participants could raise any issues of concern, and attendees would NOT be limited to individuals selected by the schools or administration.

    The information collected from such meetings could potentially provide our best sources of data for mapping out better paths into the future. The lives of our kids are at stake, so how could this not be worth the investment. …And if you think this is not a potentially helpful solution, I’d like to hear others’ ideas about alternative routes to change.

    • NutshellsGuy

      Wonderfully stated. I agree completely.

    • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

      Absolutely.

  • kMeansWhat

    The article doesn’t really make any argument that the school system is to blame outside of the one example of scheduling midterms on the day of the student’s funeral, which admittedly seems like the wrong move and even a little callous.

    I am a NNHS grad, who is now at a top 10 university, and can say that the school system in Newton is fantastic at preparing students to do university work. I wouldn’t trade it for anything and I don’t think lowering the academic standards is anything more than a bandaid for the situation. Not a single teacher, counselor, or principal I ever had implied that I had to go to an Ivy league school, or had to get perfect grades, or take all AP courses. Usually, the message was the opposite. Ultimately, students can choose how many honors/AP courses to take and if they can’t handle the workload, we should ask why they took those courses. I think the answer will usually be, ‘to look good for colleges’. But I challenge anyone to come up with something the school system could change so that students would not want to get into good colleges. The programming that students receive comes from other students, their parents, and from a society which is more economically competitive/cutthroat than it has been in a couple decades. I would like to hear specific policies that put pressure on students, outside of giving them less work, which will hurt the quality of the education provided by these schools.

    • NutshellsGuy

      You wrote: “I don’t think lowering the academic standards is anything more than a bandaid for the situation.”

      A careful read of the article and most comments will show that this is not the suggested solution.

      • kMeansWhat

        Maybe I didn’t read carefully enough; what do you see as the suggested solution? I have seen most people, including the article cite course workload as the main way schools contribute to the issue. The article says

        “More generally, kids have so much homework that they don’t have any time to have fun or just chill. The teachers tell parents that the homework should not take more than 30-60 minutes per class, but in reality, work for a single class can take three or more hours. As a result, the kids go to bed extremely late and have to get up extremely early.”

        The problem is, to learn complicated things, you have to spend a lot of time on them. You are going to learn less about writing/math/chemistry, etc. if you spend 30 minutes a night instead of an hour. So, in my opinion, reducing courseload means decreasing academic standards.

        Do you disagree that people are suggesting less homework as a solution? Or do you disagree that less homework means a worse education?

        To be fair, people have mentioned a few other things, such Coaches/practice. But in terms of concrete things schools can change, I see mostly that and homework mentioned. If there are other areas, please point them out to me.

        • NutshellsGuy

          You wrote: “The problem is, to learn complicated things, you have to spend a lot of time on them. You are going to learn less about writing/math/chemistry, etc. if you spend 30 minutes a night instead of an hour. So, in my opinion, reducing courseload means decreasing academic standards.”

          That would be true IF the amount a person learns in a single session of study were linearly related to the amount of time put in studying, ad infinitum. This is not how the human brain works.

          For high-school-aged students, this relationship only holds true up to about 2-2.5 hours of homework per night (assuming a full day of classes prior). Beyond that amount of time, there is essentially NO additional learning overall, or even a degradation in the amount learned. Cramming those extra facts and concepts in actually weakens the learning of what the person has previously taken in, with a net constant or declining result beyond the level achieved at 2 or so hours.

          This is not true for learning that’s accomplished in repeated amounts that don’t exceed the learners capacity, day after day. In that scenario, the more time put in the more learned. But it truly is a “slow and steady wins the race” kind of thing. (How the brain works in memory and learning is fascinating, and there’s a ton of new discoveries all the time.)

          Here’s an interesting example of how counterintuitive learning can be. I am an engineer. I worked for 6 years after undergrad, then went back to grad school. My work was all government policy and non-technical stuff, practically nothing of what I learned in college. All my grad school classmates, on the other hand, had just graduated at the top of their classes from top schools around the world. (I went to MIT, so I’m not exaggerating.)

          Since I was switching engineering majors, many of my grad courses were in topics that I never had as an undergrad. One of two courses I had as both an undergrad and a grad student was thermodynamics, and as an undergrad I did well but not outstanding by any means. However, during the six years of NO exposure, the material I had learned as an underground had somehow integrated and internalized within me, and I got the top score in the class. My classmates were much, much faster at calculations, but I had the benefit of the time for the concepts to mature within me … without working on it!

          • kMeansWhat

            I’d love to see the study which can pinpoint it to 2-2.5 hours a day, if you can link to it! As an engineer, you must have spent much longer days studying in college and grad school, though; I am also in a mathematical/engineering field and spend at least 6-8 hours a day on school work. Do our minds just mature a lot between high school and college? Or do you think that college education is flawed as well, as far as coursework goes?

          • kMeansWhat

            by the way, I appreciate your willingness to engage in courtesy discourse; often times, these forums can get name-call-y very quickly.

          • NutshellsGuy

            Thank you. Here’s a study that’s often cited. It’s long and highly academic, but the punchline is found at the bottom of p. 52: “We found only one study that permitted interpretation regarding optimum homework amounts. Lam (1996) found that for Caucasian American and Asian American high school students the strongest relationship between homework and achievement was found among students reporting doing 7 to 12 hours of homework per week, followed by students reporting doing 13–20 hours per week. This finding extends the conclusions from the earlier synthesis because it was not able to make a distinction in time spent on homework per night beyond 2 hours for high school students. Assuming that the causal direction of these findings is predominantly one in which more homework causes better achievement, the Lam (1996) finding suggests that the optimum benefits of homework for high school students might lie between 1-1⁄2 and 2-1⁄2 hours.”

            The author also has a more readable book about the subject, called The Battle Over Homework; the same conclusion is cited on p. 34.

            I’ll give a link to another, very readable article in a separate post so that the links are all live.

            http://larrycuban.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/review-of-educational-research-2006-cooper-1-62.pdf

          • kMeansWhat

            Thanks for the links! I’ll give it a read. I do worry a little about causation problems, i.e the best students are bright enough that they can finish their homework in less time. But I should actually look at the paper before complaining too much.

          • bacigalupe

            Research example: Interesting longitudinal 2013 study:

            To Study or to Sleep? The Academic Costs of Extra Studying at the Expense of Sleep
            Full Link here: http://www.highschoolengineering.com/Downloads/ForDaytoDayOnSupportPage/ResearchArticleSleep.pdf

            Presumably, when students choose to trade sleep
            for studying, they do so because they believe that
            the increased studying will help their grades. On
            the one hand, this strategy may be effective
            because, overall, study time is associated with aca-
            demic achievement. On average, students who
            spend more time studying tend to do better on
            achievement tests (Fuligni & Stevenson, 1995). Stu-
            dents who have high grade point averages (GPAs)
            study for an average of about three fourths of an
            hour longer on weeknights than their peers who
            have low GPAs (Witkow, 2009). On the other hand,
            sacrificing sleep, even for additional studying, may
            be an ineffective strategy because average time
            spent sleeping also contributes to higher achieve-
            ment. Students whose schedules include more
            hours of sleep per night tend to have higher grades
            than their peers who sleep for fewer hours (Wolf-
            son & Carskadon, 2003). When students are sleep
            deprived, they experience greater fatigue at school
            the following day, and greater fatigue can make
            learning more difficult (Giannotti, Cortesi, Sebas-
            tiani, & Ottaviano, 2002). Furthermore, sleep is a
            key restorative process during which consolidation
            of learning takes place (Diekelmann & Born, 2010).
            Thus, additional study time, when it comes at the
            expense of sleep time, may not benefit achievement
            as much as students think.

          • bacigalupe

            Duke Study: Homework Helps Students Succeed in School, As Long as There Isn’t Too Much http://shar.es/FuftU

          • kMeansWhat

            Thanks for the article; it was a very interesting read! And by doing student-self comparisons, they controlled for the problem I mentioned above, which is nice

            I think the picture they paint is complex, though. Their final results show that once you control for the amount of sleep, extra studying has no significant correlation w/ academic problems. This does seem to lend credence to the idea that extra studying does not really help. I think there are a few caveats, though.

            The study look at academic problems the next day, based on studying the night before; however, as any high school student will tell you, the nights you study most are the ones that proceed a test/presentation/paper that you are not prepared for and feel the need to cram for. The study does not control for this 3rd variable (to their credit, they do not claim to, and admit the study leaves out some aspects of student life.). It would have helped to add some variable, like confidence about success in the next school day, controlled for that, and see if studying still did not help.

            The study also could have aggregated the data, to reduce this noise, and just looked at whether average hours of studying per night correlated with better performance. At the start of the paper, they mention a paper which claims to show that that is the case: more studying means better performance on achievement tests.

            Finally, they add in the conclusion that:

            “It is important to underscore that our results do
            not suggest that it is problematic for adolescents to
            spend more time studying overall.”

            So, I think we are right to point out that studying to the point of losing sleep, is probably bad, but it is less clear that more studying does not help at all.

          • kMeansWhat

            Incidentally, thank you for writing the article; I am not sure we totally agree, but these are good things to talk about.

          • NutshellsGuy

            Here’s the other article worth reading, called The Case For and Against Homework in the March 2007 issue of Educational Leadership.

            Note this comment from that article:

            “Cooper, Robinson, and Patall (2006) also issued a strong warning about too much homework: Even for these oldest students, too much homework may diminish its effectiveness or even become counterproductive. (p 53)

            “Cooper (2007) suggested that research findings support the common “10-minute rule” (p. 92), which states that all daily homework assignments combined should take about as long to complete as 10 minutes multiplied by the student’s grade level. He added that when required reading is included as a type of homework, the 10-minute rule might be increased to 15 minutes.

            “Focusing on the amount of time students spend on homework, however, may miss the point. A significant proportion of the research on homework indicates that the positive effects of homework relate to the amount of homework that the student completes rather than the amount of time spent on homework or the amount of homework actually assigned. Thus, simply assigning homework may not produce the desired effect—in fact, ill-structured homework might even have a negative effect on student achievement. Teachers must carefully plan and assign homework in a way that maximizes the potential for student success (see Research-Based Homework Guidelines).”

            Cheers! – NutshellsGuy

            http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar07/vol64/num06/The-Case-For-and-Against-Homework.aspx

  • Karen Ziminski

    Great article. Finland’s students regularly have some of the highest test scores in the world, but they don’t burn themselves out with homework.

    • kMeansWhat

      Do you have any data on the comparison between US student’s stress and Finland student stress?

      • Karen Ziminski

        No hard data, but I have read many articles that talk about the attitude in Finland that the schools emphasize cooperation rather than competition. Article in Wall Street Journal says Finnish students rarely do more than a half hour of homework per night.

      • bacigalupe

        About this debate:
        http://www.stgeorges.qc.ca/uploaded/StGeorges_Website/Community/ParentPage/links/Homework_or_Not_That_is_the_(Research)_Question_Tabloid.pdf

        In 2012, Finland and South Korea came in at numbers 1 and 2, respectively, on the Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Education Attainment, which ranks countries based on international test scores, literacy, and graduation rates (the United States was ranked at number 17). Though their students occupy the top spots globally, these two nations approach homework and learning in radically different ways.

        Finland follows a European educational model, characterized by short school days and few homework assignments. South Korea, like many East Asian countries, in contrast, has long school days followed by tutoring sessions and a focus on rote learning
        assignments. “It is hard to find two education systems more different,” says the rankings report “The Learning Curve: Lessons in Country Performance in Education.” The report adds, “Closer examination, though, shows that both countries develop high-
        quality teachers, value accountability and have a moral mission that underlies education efforts.”

  • cdyer

    Not sure the answer is for the schools to point fingers at the parents, and the parents to point fingers at the schools.
    I fear that more parent involvement at the high school level could really confound the system.
    Yes, there are lots of highly educated people in Newton, but each has their own opinion, and if all the opinions, perspectives, levels of expertise (along with egos and in some cases, very strong entitlements) need to be addressed, it seems to me that the business of teaching our kids will become impossible.
    What are possible solutions?
    On the federal/state level, let’s lobby for annual mental health screening check ups for all adults, and bi-annual for teenagers and young adults. A first step that needs to be taken to de-stigmatize and normalize caring for our mental health. Make ‘asking for mental help’ commonplace. As commonplace as seeing an orthopedic surgeon for a broken leg.
    On the community level, ok, focusing on Newton (I’m a Newton parent too), let the parents organize their expertise, opinions, offerings, separately from the schools. Let the schools do the same, and hire a city liaison position, or committee, to work between the two groups to actively sort through what may be useful to implement and how. Fund this position, since clearly we cannot afford to not take action, and fund grants to implement programs that are comprised of cogent ideas from both groups. Evaluate programs that arise out of this collaboration regularly, and scrap the bad, keep the effective or combine different things until we have something that is actually useful.

    • NutshellsGuy

      Some good thoughts here. You are right to be concerned that it not turn into chaos or otherwise fail. But I’m not sure what the right way to organize it would be.

  • cdyer

    Not sure the answer is for the schools to point fingers at the parents, and the parents to point fingers at the schools.
    I fear that more parent involvement at the high school level could really confound the system.
    Yes, there are lots of highly educated people in Newton, but each has their own opinion, and if all the opinions, perspectives, levels of expertise (along with egos and in some cases, very strong entitlements) need to be addressed, it seems to me that the business of teaching our kids will become impossible.
    What are possible solutions?
    On the federal/state level, let’s lobby for annual mental health screening check ups for all adults, and bi-annual for teenagers and young adults. A first step that needs to be taken to de-stigmatize and normalize caring for our mental health. Make ‘asking for mental help’ commonplace. As commonplace as seeing an orthopedic surgeon for a broken leg.
    On the community level, ok, focusing on Newton (I’m a Newton parent too), let the parents organize their expertise, opinions, offerings, separately from the schools. Let the schools do the same, and hire a city liaison position, or committee, to work between the two groups to actively sort through what may be useful to implement and how. Fund this position, since clearly we cannot afford to not take action, and fund grants to implement programs that are comprised of cogent ideas from both groups. Evaluate programs that arise out of this collaboration regularly, and scrap the bad, keep the effective or combine different things until we have something that is actually useful.

  • Guest

    I went to Newton North and remember the pressure to get everything done. I don’t remember it coming from my parents or from my teachers. I remember it coming from my friends. The pervasive message was that you had to be really successful to get into a good college. But when your standard high school student would be a stand out student at many other schools, you feel the need to do more. To achieve more and participate in more than your friends. Does anyone else remember this article? http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/01/education/01girls.html?_r=0 I feel like there needs to be a shift from the abstract conversation of 2007 to real, concrete changes. I’m greatful for the skills I learned at NNHS and think its helped me to be successful in my career, but there needs to be a shift to create healthier, happier students.

  • NutshellsGuy

    I think people need to be reminded that the author is not “blaming the suicides on homework.”

    The author’s message is this:

    “The official message appears again to continue accepting this situation as an individual or family problem, rather than part of a collective narrowness and craze about achievement.”

    So he is talking about a *collective* issue of “craze about achievement,” which can be a contributing factor to depression, health issues, and other consequences.

    Why is talking about this controversial? I think more good has been done by this article, and the comments expressing all points of view, than would have been done by leaving the topic alone.

    I suggest that all parties involved – teachers, students, parents, and NPS administration – take some steps to further the dialog in a meaningful way.

    In addition to dialog, something like a study can be done at one or two middle schools, or even one of the high schools, in which the school truly enforces the stated homework limitations for half of a grade level (say for 2 years), and leaves the status quo for the other half for that time. The performance impact – positive, negative, or neutral – can be tracked, as well as other measurements geared toward assessing well-being. I’m sure someone can design it better than this, but I wanted to toss out the idea.

  • Alex Gribov

    I graduated Newton North last year. I spent my first two and a half years slacking off, getting average grades, and having plenty of time to socialize, but by senior year I decided to step up my game, take a bunch of AP’s, and ace them all. And I did. And I worked managed my time well enough that I was happy and kept my social life. That year of “hard work” was easy compared to the workload I now face in college. I believe that pushing kids to work hard and compete isn’t the problem, it gets them ready for real life. In fact if it was up to me, almost every student would complete Calculus II by graduation (I’m appalled at how weak the math curriculum is across the US). But what I don’t like about the school system, is the separation of knowledge from interest. Kids are batched into groups by age, taking the same core classes as all of their peers, with a minimal regard for learning level, personal strengths and weaknesses, and above all interest. The math teacher teaches math, and the English teacher teaches English, but noone looks at a student as a whole, evaluates what they love to do, and what they want to do in life, and helps them to arrange their classes around that. My senior year was the only year I enjoyed learning, and it was because I got to pick classes I loved. I got to take AP psych as a history course, and I worked hard because it peaked my interest. I’ve hated books since reading The Odyssey (while simultaneously being introduced to video games) in 6th grade. I skipped most of my required readings in favor of sparknotes all the way through junior year. But senior year I took a class that let me read any book I want, and write about whatever topic I chose, and I tore through 18 books of my choice that year and wrote countless essays about my views of life. Allowing me to choose what I learn, and be responsible for my own education is what put pleasure into studying, and it’s a shame that you are not given that kind of control until senior year.

  • pauly2468

    Is it any wonder that Social Darwinism is so prevalant in the US?How can we resolve or even address issues of poverty,homelessness,climate change etc if even the future leaders are awash in struggles for survival and dominance?

  • Sabata

    Normally I don’t comment on stories like this, but in this instance I feel compelled to.

    I graduated from Newton North in 2009, as a somewhat “average” student, and by average I mean I had roughly a 3.0 by common college GPA calculations. I applied to only one college, UMass Amherst, and got it. (I’ve just recently graduated there)

    There are two major points I’d like to make in regards to this. The first is that I can 100% confirm that in my high school career there was tremendous pressure from the school system to be as high an achiever as AT LEAST the currently highest achiever. However it’s important to note that students’ reactions to that pressure differ in many ways. I can only speak for myself but I gave up trying my best around sophomore year when it became clear that I could not do as much as the top achievers. Coming from a divorced family and dealing with plenty of teenage issues there was no way I could have been a star athlete, gotten a 4.0 and taken AP classes without losing my mind. I did just enough to maintain at least Bs in all my classes, getting occasional As, but not really caring because there was no way I could be the best (cynical teenage thought.) Who knows how much better I might have done had I not seen the system as stacked against me, but it’s possible that was as much my fault as the schools.

    The second, and more important, point is that the effect the loss of a classmate can have on students CANNOT be overstated. A student died a few years back in a tragic car crash, and one of my friends, who had been good friends with him, still carries that grief years later, even WITH help from counselors, and memorial services. I can barely stand to think how much of an effect it would still have on her if it had not been for those amenities. The losses felt by the newton community NEED to be addressed.

    Life is fragile and precious, and should be treated as such. Callously ignoring that fact around people who are still developing their self concept is a recipie for disaster.

  • NutshellsGuy

    One thing that’s very ironic about this conversation is that so many are denying that the huge homework loads exist, or say that it’s within a students control – yet all the administrators we have spoken to have acknowledged to us that homework loads in middle school are much larger than they used to be, and it gets much worse in high school.

    They just told us either that they don’t see it as a problem or have indicated that they don’t believe that they can change the system (with the clear implication that the levels above them think that this is how it should be).

    I trust what these administrators are saying, because they get to see *all* of the students’ experiences, not just the ones who breeze through or take light loads to avoid lots of homework.

    Anyway, it all comes back to the fact that it has been shown that the optimum amount of homework time – for *educational* purposes – for high school is about two hours per night, two and one-half perhaps for seniors. More than that just doesn’t improve outcomes, and in fact has a negative effect on students.

    Finally, as adults, how many of us can’t relate to the sheer oppression of the huge work project that requires us to not only work our full workday but also nights and weekends. Now imagine you are 15 or 16 again, and have to do that for 9 months in a row, about 4 of them in the dreary winter. What kind of quality of life is that? I can understand sacrifice, believe me – I worked even harder than that through a long (>6 years) graduate school program – but NOT when it’s unnecessary and in fact counterproductive relative to the goal. It’s sheer madness. Wake up, Newton parents and policy makers.

    • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

      The homework loads in middle school are insane and counterproductive, but they are also absolutely not indicative of the workloads at high school.

      Of course, maybe that’s just because I took a “light load” of 11 Honors/AP classes from 10th-12th grade to “avoid lots of homework.”

      • NutshellsGuy

        Excellent, and thanks for the data point.

        One thing that it tells us unequivocally is that “it can be done,” which is important to know. But interpreting more from that single data point requires some more information:

        - Relative to your classmates, were you in the bottom, middle, or top third of time it took to finish homework?

        - Were your grades in the top, middle, or bottom of the classes?

        - How many students were there in the classes?

        • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

          I was probably in the bottom third in terms of time it took me to finish it once I started, but I’m also highly disorganized and have/had a serious procrastination problem when I’m not in season, so I might actually fit your definition of someone who breezed or coasted through.

          I’ve always been more of a college-style learner, (I can memorize stuff extremely easily, by hearing and reading about it only care about stuff that will help me succeed on tests and papers) and high school is basically designed to help kids with the opposite of my profile. Assignments designed as grade-boosters for kids on the lower end, like taking notes on a chapter in Chem or Vocab books in English, usually hurt my grade, because I prioritized work that helped me learn over ones reinforcing concepts that had been explained several times in class. So, when I got an A on the test, it usually averaged out to a B+ due to the missing assignments.

          Anyway, when I did do all of my homework, each assignment usually took between twenty minutes and an hour of continuous work. No single-night assignment took longer than a free block, when I remembered to do it. On a typical night in 10th and 11th grade, I did 3/4 of my assignments and went to bed by 10:30, usually having forgotten or neglected to do something like a 20-30 minute language assignment.

          Because of my whole “not doing homework I deemed unnecessary until senior year” issue, I was a B+ student in History, English, Language and Science and a B- in Math, because I rarely, if ever, got lower than 90 on non-Math tests or lower than a B on writing assignments, along with avid class participation.

          Senior year, when I realized that I needed to get better than Bs to go to the schools I was interested in, I was consistently in the top of the class while never going to bed later than 12:30, except when there was a paper due that I hadn’t started yet.

          In my history and English classes, there were never more than 25 kids. In my Language classes, there were never more than 20 kids. In my Math and Science classes, there were usually between 25 and 30 kids.

          I’ve always cared far more about learning than about my grades, so I might not especially representative of that illusory “quintessential South student,” but the “academic culture of high-achievement” or whatever had very little to do with the stress I dealt with during my four years there.

          • NutshellsGuy

            Thanks for sharing the info, and sorry I haven’t responded yet. Work is getting in the way … I used to procrastinate a lot too, but having a family cures that real quick!

  • Anon

    I go to Acton-Boxborough and I definitely feel the pressure that this article talks about. If you listen to most of the conversations in school, they’re about college, homework, stress, classes and tests. There’s never any time for discussion about what we’re feeling, or going out for movies, gossiping etc. Our whole lives are centered around work. It feels as if walls are closing in and there’s no escape. This issue needs to be solved, stat. For the sake of the future generations, and to make the lives better for the current one.

    • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

      It gets better. Its called college. Your problems are nothing new, everyone that went to high school had to deal with them. You’ll get over it.

      • NutshellsGuy

        I must not have gone to high school, then. Somehow I learned a lot without all the pressure and overwork.

        • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

          So you never had to do multiple hours of homework after school?

          • NutshellsGuy

            Of course I did. A couple of hours, though, is a lot different from what the person who posted described. My whole life was not centered around work.

      • Anon

        uh why do you think these kids committed suicide?

        • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

          I have no idea. I didn’t know the kids and I’m not their therapist. I’d venture to guess though that they had much more going on in their lives than just too much homework/stress from school. There is never a simple answer to why someone committed suicide. Yes, there are often external factors, but a lot of it has to do with the person’s mental health. In tragic situations like this, people search for easy answers when there are none. They try to rationalize and explain, when often there is no explanation. Unfortunately, I know people who committed suicide. All of us who were close to them searched for answers, and none of them were enough to bring us closure. Really, the only answers that we knew were true where from a note (the other person didn’t leave one). There’s no way to know for sure what is going on in someone’s mind when the take their own life. The only answers can come from any writing that person left behind. Trying to point fingers and assign blame is not healthy.

          • Anon

            i’m saying that a big factor was stress coming from the school and friends around them about getting into college and overachieving

          • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

            Are you Haley Joel Osment, or are you just speculating about the thoughts and feelings of three different individuals who you didn’t even go to school with?

            The fact is that none of us know why.

          • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

            And did they tell you this, or are you just speculating and guessing about things you have no way of knowing about?

    • NutshellsGuy

      Please do what you can to take care of yourself. My own personal “wall expander” is to get exercise. Having a conversation with someone with whom you can express these issues and will not judge you is also really, really helpful. Do any of your friends and acquaintances feel like this too?

      Best of luck. Please keep reaching out and find someone who hears you and has your interests at heart.

  • Sam

    Blaming the suicides on schoolwork is a gross oversimplification of a very complex series of issues these kids faced. In the face of tragedy, society loves to pinpoint singular things to blame, but there was a lot going on that none of us knew about; much more than pressure from the school.

    • NutshellsGuy

      You are right.

      However, the author’s message is this:

      “The official message appears again to continue accepting this situation as an individual or family problem, rather than part of a collective narrowness and craze about achievement.”

      So he is not blaming the suicides simply on homework. He is talking about an issue of “craze about achievement” that can be a contributing factor to depression, health issues, and other consequences.

      • Sam

        Fair enough. I just hope that no one at school thinks anyone did what they did solely because of the pressure from school.

  • Guest

    I’m currently at Newton North and there is no way that I have less than 2 hours of homework a night. I also participate in theatre and other extra-curriculars so i need to manage my time well but that is easier said than done! Although I do not feel pressure when it comes to college (hey, I’ll get into somewhere right? does it really matter where?? I don’t think so), I do feel a lot of stress coming from teachers and my AP classes. For example last month we had a death in the family and that took a heavy toll on my health and grades. But one thing that keeps me motivated is simply thinking ahead and looking forward to stuff during the week. I remind myself that it will get better even though I get stuck sometimes, but that’s natural.

  • mm1029

    I am heart broken to read another story about youth suicide, particularly in the community where I was born, raised, and educated. To any teen reading this, please know that things can get better, that there are people out there available to support you, and that you deserve to be heard.

    The issue at hand is an incredibly large-scale issue – one where we can’t simplify and point fingers alone at parenting styles, familial high expectations, school culture, or peer interactions. It is all of these things – on such a micro-level – it is every interaction added up together.

    I remember countless experiences in middle school when teachers spoke about their preferred colleges for their own children, all of which were Ivy League. In hindsight, I don’t know how others responded to it since I didn’t even want to bring it up with any friends. But I was deeply affected by it. As a previous poster noted, there were indeed many conversations with peers, other families, and counselors where it seemed like every single non-Ivy school failed in comparison. There was often judgment linked to questions about how many AP classes one was taking. As a teen, it is hard to imagine and believe that a world exists outside of Newton in which there may be very different, very flexible levels of acceptance, achievement, and what is meant by ‘success’. It is so important that our youth are reminded of this. That things will and do get better and that they can be in control of defining their own successes. Success isn’t limited to the gripping stereotypes that Newton youth may be so concerned about meeting.

    I think we all have a responsibility to be aware of the weight of our words, the subtleties of how we respond to conversations about AP versus ‘regular’ classes, early versus ‘regular’ admissions, those schools with the ivy tours versus ‘the others’. Every teen wants to be heard, appreciated, and loved for who they are. Hopefully we as a community can provide this to all of the youth.

    • NutshellsGuy

      Very well said!

  • Charlie

    For a year I went to a school where teachers expected absolutely nothing from kids. Seniors were graduated because the teachers didn’t want to see them around another year. 0% of kids went to college. Now I go to a competitive public high school in a town near Newton. Teachers expect us to succeed, along with parents and guidance counselors. How each student defines success is up to them. I spend 4-6 hours on homework each night, but I’m grateful I have the opportunity to get the education I’m getting out of those hours. I think it’s hard to realize how lucky we are until we realize how unlucky we aren’t.

    And I don’t play any sports but as a senior I have already heard back from 3 (admittedly non-ivy) colleges with acceptances. Clearly extras aren’t the only thing colleges are looking for as some commentors implied…grades, interviews, essays, test scores, and luck are also factors. Yes, high school is stressful…but it’s only 4 years! (5 for me actually, because I stayed back, but that’s not the point) After that it’s time to really start picking your own goals and life choices because you’re not going to have teachers and counselors around to help you through it.

    • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

      “Admittedly non-Ivy”? There’s no need to qualify the fact that you got into three schools. Some of the smartest kids I know go to “non-Ivy” schools.

      Congratulations, man.

  • zlatky

    Although I do agree with this, the issue is not the amount of work. I personally go to Newton South and I was best friends with someone that recently took their life. My friend didn’t make the decision she did because of the workload and stress, its a completely different issue that never is mentioned and seems to be unrecognized as an issue. Newton South has problems of addiction drugs and alcohol. Many students do really well in school but trust me, almost everyone I see at South has some issues going on inside. We focus too much on anti-bullying at South and don’t focus on the real issues. South really needs help. Ive seen my best friend go and I’m not ready to loose another.

  • Anonymous

    I am a senior at Newton South high school and I would just like to say that I have a lot of friends who take more AP/honors classes than they can handle. Everyday I hear at least one of them complain about how much work they’re getting but it’s not the teachers fault. That student decided to take on those classes not the teacher. Even towards the beginning of the year I would hear them complain about the amount of work they were getting and I would suggest for them to drop down to a curriculum 1 class. If a student is going to take an AP/honors class then they should know that there is going to be more work than usual. No one is forcing them to take such difficult classes, at least non of the teachers are.
    Newton South also gives out a lot of help when it comes to the students education. They have programs such as Compass to help kids who are really struggling in school. They also offer different leveled curriculum’s. If you’re son or daughter is struggling so much with their classes then have them drop to a lower curriculum. I would rather take an easier class and get an A than to take a more difficult class and get a D.
    No one should be blaming teachers for the stress of their children. A student, his/her parents, and their guidance counselor should be able to recognize when the student isn’t doing well in a class.
    As for kids not getting any time to go out…..well they must be finding the time to go out with their friends somewhere, because I see a lot of people from my school going out to parties at least once a week.
    Even though it’s easy to point fingers at the teachers, they shouldn’t be the ones getting blamed. Students should be taking responsibility for the management of their work. High school is supposed to prepare young adults to go off to college and if your child doesn’t know how to advocate for themselves by senior year then there is a bigger problem out there. It’s okay to not take so many AP/honors classes. It also makes it a lot easier if parents are their to support them through their decisions. Parents need to make sure that their child feels comfortable with telling them that they are not doing well in school or need help. No student should ever feel that they are a lone when they feel that they are not succeeding, it only puts more stress onto them.

    • mb495

      It’s the amount of time needed to do homework, not the level of the course. My daughter has 3 curric-1 classes and 2 honors classes. Typically, all 3 curric-1 classes give 1 or more hours of homework per night (English consistently gives the most homework beyond 1 hour, with the least notice — i.e. “due tomorrow”), 1 of the honors classes gives 1 hour of homework per night, and the other honors class (math) regularly gives 2 hours per night. Taking curric-1 (the new “advanced college prep” level) does NOT ensure that there is less homework per night than honors classes.

  • Zacharias

    I think that the issue goes much deeper than just the Newton School System. The academic industry, and I use this word on purpose, is a well run business. HIgher education universities form high schools and grammar schools in their image. One cannot expect Newton to stop teaching for the SAT, urging their kids to build resumés, and participate in extracurriculars if the rest of the country does not take a stand. They will simply lose acceptance rates, their school system will fall in the ratings, houses will become worth less money, etc… The list goes on, but education and scores factor into a lot more than just the students attending the classes. As a current BC student who attended private school north of Boston, I can assure you that I have felt the pressure first hand, but that the problem lies in the nature of how we judge students as a whole. There is a lack of appreciation for the arts and degrees have come to lose their value. Undergraduate studies are the new high school, Masters Degrees the new Undergrad, and PhDs the new Masters… Until we change this form of judgment and stigma against students who do not test well, there will be more and more who are simply prescribed some adderal or vyvanse and told to calm down. If you want to hear an insightful speech on the destructive nature of America and most of Western Europe’s education systems, watch Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

  • Guest

    I’m a former South student and remember seeing kids crying in the hallways, devastated, because they didn’t get into Brandeis, or whichever other bullshit, name-brand school they thought would give them bragging rights.

    The goal posts are misaligned, because these kids are raised in a culture of one-upping. They are led to believe that the “best” school they get into is actually the “best” choice for them, without being educated about the financial black-hole that awaits them post-grad.

    It’s painful to speculate on the specific reasonings for these suicides, but I don’t think its out of line to suggest that more of these kids are realizing that the system they’re set up in and the path they’re being pressured to take is total bullshit.

    It’s such a shame that anyone that age could lose hope so easily and completely, and we should all feel responsible because we’ve deferred changing the systems and structures that determine our public education for far too long.

    It’s a systemic problem and parents, teachers, administrators, students are all at fault.

    Here’s a great article that highlights some changes we could make:
    http://qz.com/148393/the-four-ways-to-really-fix-education-that-no-one-wants-to-hear/

  • visionsblue

    As an NSHS alum, I cannot disagree more with this article.
    I graduated NSHS in 2005, and I was very depressed the entire time I was there, but it was not the “culture of achievement” enforced by the teachers, but rather a culture of entitled affluence–particularly on behalf of the parents. Newton South High is comprised of mostly students coming from extremely wealthy backgrounds, and is extremely lacking in racial diversity. As a multiracial student, I often felt lonely, isolated, and misunderstood.
    Honestly what I witnessed more than anything else was individuals manipulating the system with their privilege. I witnessed so many helicopter parents being overly involved with their students’ education, and pressuring teachers into given them better grades. I also remember a lot of students who really didn’t work that hard, skipped class, and still got into great schools. People would joke, “Ugh, if all else fails there is always UMass”. I don’t think people in Newton realize what a privilege it is to be able to afford to go to college in the first place, let alone “a top school”. The fact that students could casually joke about a good state school as being a default or failure is an insult to the many young people who are desperate for opportunities of higher education.
    I could go on and on critiquing Newton’s culture, but the hardest thing for me to grapple with is that as much as I didn’t like the social culture (one that was extremely self-absorbed–whether it be a preoccupation with material things or individual success) I did receive a damn good free public education, and I had teachers and guidance counselors who really cared for me. Quite frequently, my teachers were the only voice of reason providing support and wisdom on the fact that the world is much bigger than Newton South. When I went to college I met the most amazing, passionate group of young people who were thoughtful, critical thinkers with independent thought. Fostering discussion and new ideas was valued more so than the perfect score, and that environment was where I was most happy in my young adolescent life.
    The idea that grades or SAT scores=success is also ridiculous. I got some C’s while I was in Newton Schools, and you know what? I got into a great college. While attending that college, I also received C’s in some of my coursework, and I am currently attending an Ivy League graduate school in a competitive field.

    The deaths of these young people is an absolute tragedy, but to put it on the educators of this community is ludicrously offensive. The teacher’s are not obsessed with which colleges the students attend. There is pressure to do well in high school, but its not coming from the staff.

    • Lauren Berman

      Well said; I couldn’t agree with you more. The schools aren’t the problem. For many kids, their teachers and guidance counselors are the voices of reason. Sadly, I feel we’re all culpable. We append value to meaningless goals—for some it’s the ivy league college we just have to get into or the perfect GPA or SAT superscore that absolutely must be attained. For others, it’s the ideal body weight or vision of physical perfection that must be reached. I don’t think this is a problem that’s limited to tony suburbs like Newton, but, perhaps it’s exacerbated here, because of our sense of entitlement. What worries me is that before we can effectively address the issue of teenage suicide, we have to concur on its causal factors. From the division of opinions expressed in
      this forum, I wonder if that can actually happen. It makes me sick to think that the three students who killed themselves were simply collateral damage for business as usual.

    • NutshellsGuy

      Good observations, though I still disagree with your implication that teachers aren’t putting excessive pressure on students, at least quite a few of them. I don’t actually have firsthand experience with South, but definitely with other schools in NPS.

      And I think that the experience of different students in the system can be different, as is evidenced by the range of experiences documented here.

      This dialogue going on here is what needs to happen directly between parents, students, teachers, and administrators. Hashing it out in the press is less effective. But many have requested that of NPS, yet it has never happened.

    • anonymous

      I think you’re really onto something. I attended Newton North in the mid- to late-nineties. The culture of the students sucked. I was depressed, isolated, deeply self-conscious, and over-scheduled, and I thought about suicide constantly. Many of the students were unfriendly, self-segregating, competitive, and obsessed with getting into a “good school,” which I now realize is a bunch of classist bullshit. Ever since finishing high school, I have been working to unlearn the social norms that I learned there. I wish I had grown up in a place where kids get to be kids and people don’t take themselves so seriously.

  • ahp411

    I commend Dr. Bacigalupe for writing this and for holding the school system accountable for the tremendous pressure it puts on students. Although I am 10 years out of high school, this article poignantly reminds me of my high school days in a similarly prestigious Northeastern school district. I remember school personnel telling me I wasn’t living up to my potential if I “settled” for the honor’s program at Boston College, insisting that I apply to all the Ivys and stay on the wait-list at Harvard (where I never wanted to go, anyway) until the bitter end to see if I got in. I remember my guidance counselor looking at my resume in my first college-prep meeting and saying, “You need to do more volunteering.” Meanwhile, I could not possibly have been more extracurricularly-committed in high school: I was class president every single year (and president of the entire school my senior year), took several AP classes, always made the honor roll, was in an a cappella group, and was always on a junior varsity or varsity sports team. And, I DID volunteer, nearly every Monday “holiday.”

    I agree with Dr. Bacigalupe about the critical nature of parental support. The only reason I maintained my sanity (and did not develop an eating disorder like many of my classmates) was because I had a supportive mother who battled this “nonsense.” She refused to get me an SAT tutor, limited my SAT prep, urged me to go lighter on my AP courses, and when necessary, addressed the school faculty about the pressure students were under. That being said, parents can only do so much without systemic support. I remember numerous conversations with my mother, while pulling an “all-nighter” (something, mind you, I have not done since high school–even though I am currently in a PhD program!), in which she would ask me, “Where does this pressure COME from?! I don’t care what grade you get on this test, please go to bed!”

    One of the comments addresses the fact that some Newton students have said that their first year of college was easier than high school. For me, all four years of a rigorous program at a high-ranked college was MUCH easier than high school. I would argue that in many ways, even getting my master’s degree from a similarly reputable university was easier than high school. It absolutely should not be that way. Why must we over-prepare our high school students at the immeasurable expense of their mental health?

  • Guest

    Although I do not agree with everything in this article, I applaud the writer for starting this conversation. Having recently graduated Newton South I feel that I am capable enough to reflect on my experience there and offer some suggestions.

    The NPS have many valuable resources however I believe they could be implemented better. The Guidance department at South is underutilized by the majority of the student body. Many students never get to know their counselors, and many counselors don’t get to know their students. I often wished I had a stronger relationship with my counselor but I only met with her when I had to change courses. I believe students and counselors should be forced to have more interactions. Perhaps have counselors become homeroom teachers and turn homeroom into a more beneficial time.

    There is a lack of community at Newton South, for many reasons. This point can be argued by some, but perhaps some proof is the lack of student attendance at athletic events, and overall lack in school spirit. It’s hard to build school spirit but with help from the athletic department I believe it is achievable. The AD should attempt to schedule more Friday/Saturday night games to increase attendance. The school should get lights on the fields, offer free admission to students wearing school colors, and get kids to support their friends.

    I suggest weekly loudspeaker announcements that give weekly recaps on not only athletics but everything, not only achievements but everything you feel could send a good message. The school should embrace old traditions (Powderpuff?) and start these new ones.

  • Atomic Man

    I am so sorry to hear about the suicides. I think the culture of the school system is unhealthy and focuses on the performance of the school rather than the well-being of the students.

    If your child is a round peg in a square hole of this disturbing school culture, use your judgment not the school’s. I was advised to put my son on ADHD medication by my son’s 4th grade teacher because “He would do better on the MCAS” and that it would wear off by the time he got home. The teacher then told me the names of every student in 4th grade at Pierce elementary school (one of the highest rated MCAS school in the state at the time) on ADHD medicine. A third of the kids were drugged every day in school to get these MCAS ratings. Hey West Newton parents I know which of your kids are drugged thanks to the school. Is it any surprise so many of these kids turned to pot and booze a couple years later (Newton North had the highest expulsion rate in the state for drug offenses a couple years ago)

    Kids should not have more than an hour of homework a night ever. If they have
    more it is because the school doesn’t know what they are doing. Busy work is
    not productive work. Don’t memorize something you can look up.
    To the kids, your performance in 11th grade does not determine if your life is a success or failure. Not everyone will be a straight A student but many straight A students end up working for a lot of C students who have better people skills and are better rounded people.

  • Guest

    I am so upset to hear of the recent suicides and feel that this is a sign of an unhealthy culture. It was my experience that the culture in the Newton schools was based on how the school rated, not the overall well-being of the student. I understand this issue is far larger than just Newton.

    When my son was in 4th grade in Newton the teacher told me several times that I should put my son on ADHD medication because “He would do better on the MCAS” and that it “would wear off when he got home”. She then proceeded to tell me the names of every child in his grade that was already medicated and it was over a third. I took him to the doctor and he was fine and did not need to be medicated. By the end of 8th grade I decided to leave the Newton Public schools and sent my son to Minuteman Regional High school which is a public regional high
    school that Newton students can attend if they wish to study subjects Newton
    does not support such as robotics, programming, biotech, plumbing etc.

    My son was significantly happier at Minuteman, had a reasonable work load and learned useful things. In 10th grade he took his MCAS and his state percentiles were significantly higher than they had ever been in Newton. Think about that, his MCAS percentiles were much higher than they were in Newton and he wasn’t being crushed like most of his friends from Newton were at a Newton high. I had
    no doubt that he would not have made these percentile gains had he stayed in
    Newton.

    Newton North had the highest expulsion rate in the state a couple of years ago and it was for drugs. Newton medicates their children with academic steroids (ADHD medicine) in elementary school and the kids move on to pot and alcohol in 5th and
    6th grade. Newton is great for some students but don’t count on these folks to tell you what is best for your child. That is your job to decide. That 4th grade teacher did not care about my son, only the state MCAS rating of the school.

  • Fwyrl

    I am a student at Newton South myself, and I definatly agree with what the writer is saying, though I would also say that the students also deserve some input, because right now, we have almost no say in anything, and there is no forum for us to discuss ideas on how the school can help us. Not just something that allows us to email the principal, but an open forum, that allows us to communicate with other students, teachers, staff, administration, ect. to try to solve some of the major problems that the school currently has. Something like this would also make it easier to gauge how the student body is feeling as a whole, allowing the administration to make better informed decisions.

    Both parents and students need a way to give input on the system, and I think the administration needs to be more proactive about how they make changes, not just say that it’s in place, and hope for the best, but actually do something to make sure it works.Homework-free weekends are a flop, because the teachers realize that they can follow the letter and not the spirit, and the administration does nothing. I had one teacher that flat out broke the rules regarding this, and no disciplinary actions were taken at all, because it happened again, the next homework free weekend.

    And the fact that we are expected to spend 30-60 minutes of homework, is just stupid. On our long days, we have 6 classes, that’s 3 hours of homework that we should expect (teachers mean 60 minutes, they just say 30-60 to sound better, I’ve never had less than 45 from one class when I diligently did the homework), and frequently, we get far more than 60 minutes of work per class, sometimes in excess of 90 minutes per class, for a normal class, and I’ve had upwards of 2.5 hours from just one AP class. I have a very light schedual for a NSHS student: only 2 AP classes, and at least 1 free block every day, and I do not have nearly enough time to do my work. With dinner taking an hour, and an hour set aside for showering, brushing teeth, hair, ect. and because the buses are terrible (slow, bad drivers), I get home at 5 to 5:30 PM on long days, leaving me with only an hour an a half to do homework, if I choose to starve myself of social interaction, relaxation, games, practicing my saxophone (I’m no longer in band, but I still practice, because it makes me happy), and reading books.

    So, if I deprive myself of everything that makes me happy, and healthy, I have 90 minutes to do 3-5 hours of homework. (that’s if I don’t have a project). This is, of course, unrealistic; I need to unwind, or I sleep less well than I already do, get more stressed, and do worse in class. So, I have to sacrifice my precious sleep, in order to finish my homework and relax. I cut my social interaction down to the 5 minutes in-between classes an during advisory, but even so, I’m going to bed far too late, and waking up far too early. This results, for most people, me included, in a less stable appetite, poorer attention span, weaker reasoning skills, a lower reaction time, less mental stability, and poorer physical health. This then leads to needing more relaxing time, and more time spent on homework, which repeats the cycle.

    This is what is wrong with the school system. It doesn’t listen, and is far too rigid in some places, and far too lax in others. Jack has helped things a bit, but we really need the administration to overhaul how the entire school works, how the teachers operate, and how the students handle these problems. I will admit, I don’t know how to fix some of these problems, like stress causing more sleep loss, causing more stress, but I do think this would make a good start.

    • ElliFrank

      Fwyrl, thanks for posting these honest, insightful reflections. I think you’ve really captured the situation accurately, and I respect how well you’ve put this.

      The time has come for the NPS Administration to do exactly what you’ve suggested: create opportunities — multiple types of opportunities — to listen to students. (As a parent, I’d like them to do the same with parents, too.) The Administration will never fully recognize or understand the problems that need to be addressed if it does not listen to the people who are really at the heart of this matter — the students who live with these issues every day.

      Thank you again for speaking out.

    • sumajo

      This is far and away the best comment I’ve read here. I hope this happens.

  • Katie Turkel Rosenfeld

    This is NOT the Newton school system, it is the parental culture in affluent high achieving towns across the country—where the expectation is for our kids to be an expert at something by age 12.
    I am sick to my stomach.
    This is not the way I was raised and I simply dont understand why as a generation, we do this to our kids.
    I am in the minority—an outcast—when I tell my kids they can not have an activity every day, when I demand that they stay home to decompress once or twice a week. My daughter who is a dancer is constantly pressured to dance more, be more, do more. The other moms think I am nuts when I say ‘no”. It is viewed as “unsupportive” of their interests when it’s actually me wanting the kids to relax a bit.
    It’s deeply upsetting and unless the parents take control, I don’t see it changing.
    Sadly,
    KR

  • Guest

    Moufy Interview about “Miss Newton” on NECN 7/18/11http://youtu.be/RqkZR_sVeOQ In July 2011 Jeffery Fortunato says he fictionalized issues in a song to help people be more aware, so they could reach out and help. The NECN announcer continues “Some in Newton say…teen suicide is an issue that needs attention.”

  • RF

    Can I just say something..? Im in the 10th grade and EVERYONE I know smokes weed. Like, everyone. Why would they need to if there wasn’t an excess amount of pressure? It’s turned my once close friends into douchebags that do stuff behind my back.

  • Guest

    NECN 2011 article on Newton and teen malaise. http://youtu.be/RqkZR_sVeOQ Jeffery Fortunato’s song fictionalized an issue to help people be aware “…so they can help each other…I wasn’t slamming anyone…Newton is just one well-known affluent city.” And says the NECN announcer “People in Newton say…teen suicide is an issue that needs attention.” July, 2011

    http://youtu.be/xW49WjM4UeM and

  • JustAnotherParent

    Any system gets more of what it rewards. The School Board aims for the highest achievement levels as measured in prestigious college acceptance rates, standardized test scores, etc., so as to maintain and enhance the real estate values in the town. The school admin and staff then try to please the School Board, and a vicious cycle sets in, where everybody competes for “excellence”. The stronger students generally benefit and thrive. The (spiritually) weaker students generally sink emotionally and break. Everybody else makes do with feeling inadequate.
    BUT – since it’s a public school, it must strive to educate and protect every student entrusted to the system. Anything else is a travesty and a civic crime, a betrayal of the children and their families. Imagine if as many as 50% of the students thrive, and “only” 10% of the students get hurt – would YOU risk your child to a system that breaks down every 10th, so as to benefit the top 10% and the real estate prices? I know I won’t…

  • RF

    We need to teach our kids to make jobs for themselves, NOT how to work for other people. They have no flexibility in their schedules anymore. A friend of mine a while back was doing so much sports and after-school activities, his mom made him drink energy drinks to keep himself going. We were in the 4th grade, and he would always tell me how miserable he was.

  • rebecca

    I apologize in advance for the long post but I promise it brings up some worthy ideas. As a Wellesley High School graduate, I have mixed feelings about the views of the author. I do feel that to some degree, high schools in towns such as Newton and Wellesley do put a lot of pressure on students through intense curricula. However, with increasing competition to get into top universities, how else are schools supposed to produce students that are competitive applicants to be accepted into these schools? Parents such as my own often choose to live in these towns solely for the exceptional education they offer and the knowledge that giving their child this type of education will prepare them to pursue any path in life they may chose. Unless the country as a whole decreases the demands being put on high school students (an unrealistic goal in my opinion), decreasing demands on students will only leave them unprepared to pursue higher education at top universities, a goal that will unquestionably remain.

    The major factor being overlooked is mental illness and depression. A student who is emotionally stable is likely able to identify that their source of unhappiness is high levels of pressure etc. and make life decisions that allow them to best deal with these challenges whether that be to learn to live with a B, replace an AP class for a lower level class, or drop an extracurricular activity. Students commit suicide when they are so far from this state that they would prefer to choose death over one of these options.

    Mental illness and depression is so stigmatized in our society that no one is even willing to admit that it is the cause of increasing suicides. Instead of looking to place blame on demanding curricula or parents, we need to come to terms with the fact that mental illness is a real thing, and is experienced by a large number of teenagers and young adults. How are young people supposed to feel comfortable or even know to seek help when no one will admit that this is what they suffer from. As a community we need to prioritize spreading awareness and acceptance of teenage depression and lower the stigma associated with seeking help. These teenagers need to be made aware that they DO NOT have to feel the way they do, there are ways out other than suicide, that happiness is a very real possibility.
    However, this change will take time, and if teenagers are not going to seek the
    help they need, we have a responsibility to provide it to them. Among other
    things, I believe that counseling should be mandatory at least two or three
    times a year in middle and high schools. That would allow students the opportunity to seek help and would hopefully allow schools to identify students who may not realize they need help. It is also the parents’ responsibilities to seek professional counseling for their children, especially ones who may show any signs at all of distress or of being overwhelmed.

    Pressures in life do not end after high school, they will be present at every stage of life. Instead of working to minimize these pressures, I believe we would benefit far more by working to promote the mental health of young people so that they learn to deal with the challenges life will inevitably throw at them in the most healthy way possible.

    • NutshellsGuy

      No one is saying to minimize pressure, only to make it be a healthy level that’s appropriate to the level of development of the 15-18 year old student.

      Counseling sounds good in principle, but in practice counseling by school personnel only works for some. Plus, my experience with school counselors is that they have an inherent bias to defend the policies of the schools and often pathologize parents and students who don’t fit their expectations.

  • guest

    As a graduate of the Newton schools and having many family members attend school here, I understand that there is a lot of stress happening because of school work. But having grown up here in the last 10 years or so, I feel like what is often overlooked is the issue of peer pressure and bullying. The community needs to also address the kids’ attitudes towards each other. I remember from my experiences just having a different name, or doing slightly better than a more “popular” student, several other peers in my grade would make fun of me and make a lot of snide remarks. Also from personal experience, I had a family member switch out of the Newton schools because several girls in her grade began to bully her and she no longer felt safe to attend school. We tried to work with the school administration, but they overlooked the problem and thought we were making a big deal over nothing.

  • John

    I don’t want to come across as unsympathetic, or misunderstanding, but this article makes all the wrong points. As a senior at a Newton Public High School, I can tell you better than anyone the amount of pressure is palpable. AP courses, and Honors programs, and college applications do provide a certain level of stress. Yet despite taking 2 APs, 1 Honors class, and working a part time job 5 days a week, I do not regularly feel overburdened. I think a lot of the problem comes from students not being comfortable in their own skin; students strive to emulate, and feel dissatisfied if they do not achieve as much as their peers, yet dealing with this dissatisfaction is a part of life. If you want to succeed, and have the highest grade in the class, yeah, you’re going to have to work for it. But that’s an intrinsic part of life outside the school system and the answer certainly is not to make it easier for all of the students. We get to decide which courses we take, not our teachers. If I end up at a starting position job and I never work harder than my peers, and I never try to do the best, chances are, someone else will. That someone else who worked hard is going to get a promotion over me. Life is all about dealing with a workload and determining what decisions are right for you. If you’re happy with your job, and with your salary, then yeah, go ahead, ease up. But if you want to achieve more, you’re going to have to work. Thats not just Newton. Thats life. In the same vein, if you’re happy with your grades and your achievements, then who cares what every else is doing. You are your own person. You should decide what is best for yourself.

  • BostonBridget

    The line between hard-working and overloaded is a very fine one.

    Dropping down one level in one class might be enough to take off some of the academic pressure (and an almost-guaranteed A is a big relief).

    Instead of doing a laundry list of extracurricular activities, choose one and excel at it. Being a varsity athlete is enough: there’s no need to get a bunch of “leadership” positions and try to intern as well.

    There’s no need to take the SATs every time they are offered (and in fact, it’s counterproductive). Giving a student a break helps them mentally and emotionally.

    Colleges are very willing to let students take gap years. Perhaps parents could plan on that gap year well in advance and give the student something to shoot for. (I took a gap year *during* law school – signed paperwork, dropped out, moved to California, and returned after a year with a suntan and an absurd amount of energy. My professors all said that they wished they had the guts to do something similar.) A gap year can be the light at the end of the tunnel.

    Likewise, get students to interact with adults who aren’t parents or teachers. All of us – as adults -have perspective on things we did right, things we did wrong, and how much it matters in the end (or doesn’t, really). Kids can’t get that perspective in high school when surrounded by their peers.

  • Student

    I am a student at Newton South and as a student who takes AP and Honors level classes, I can say that these presumptions that the pressures provided by these classes lead to these tragedies is incorrect. Obviously, each student takes on the workload in their own way, but in my experience, my peers and I have never been so overwhelmed with work or homework that our well-being was put at risk. I am also heavily involved in extracurricular activities both at South and unrelated and while balancing extracurriculars and schoolwork can be challenging, it is manageable. Again, this may not be the case for every student, but I can speak for myself as well as most of the students in my classes when I say that it does not lead to depression or any other serious issues. I think that it is unfair to blame the school. I think that what South needs to focus on is building a community. As much as the “Newton South Community” is referenced by teachers and administrators, this community really does not exist. We have no spirit, we have nothing really that ties us together as a school. We had one day a year that everyone really felt a part of Newton South, and that was the Thanksgiving Pep Rally/ Powderpuff event (I’m not trying to raise that issue here). I think we need to create an environment where every person feels valued and important. We need for the students to know how appreciated they are as individuals, boosting confidence and creating a sense of a caring community is the only thing that can stop kids from turning to these tragic outcomes…

  • SqueakyVoiceofReason

    In places like Newton and Brookline, where I now live and graduated from BHS there is the unspoken belief of privilege, power and success that is being shaken daily by the 21st century, post-industrial reality that is kicking everybody’s butt. Except the 1%, “We’re just fine, thanks.” Well, that is just dandy, isn’t it?

    NO. It isn’t. Because our children are paying the price the 1%s bloat and for our decades of political and moral inaction. The Hydra-like quality of the social-political challenges we face must be horrifying.

    After all, in schools like Brookline and Newton, we teach these young people to think and reason. They are the canaries in the coal mine. And their distress is felt across class lines. Like their less fortunate brothers and sisters living in economic hardship, we see once again, that poverty is a public health issue. Just like economic distress, emotional and social poverty are real and claim their victims every day.

  • SqueakyVoiceofReason

    Thanks to Dr. Baciagalupe for raising this issue. This is not about blame – and too much homework does not equal despair. There are deeper problems in our culture and schools are a natural meeting place. This is an opportunity to reflect and work to create a caring community.

    And…America and especially Newton is not falling behind in the world of education.

    The reasons why there are no jobs for our children has everything to to do with a 30 year romp of neo- conservative economic policy which has the whole planet by the throat – NOT, as the folks who benefit from this set up would have you believe, from any lack in the education of our middle and upper-middle class public school students. Don’t even get me started on the recent PISA stats. (http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2013/12/paul-krugman-cuts-through-bs-on.html)

  • Guest

    America and especially Newton is not falling behind in the world of education.

    Thanks for people like Dr. Baciagalupe for raising the issue! I hope people will take the opportunity to create caring community. This is not about blame – but about human possibility. In late 21st century, schools are where people meet and work in community and we really have no other gathering place. It seems reasonable to organize through the schools.

    The reasons why there are no jobs for our children has everything to to do with a 30 year romp of neo- conservative economic policy which has the whole planet by the throat – NOT, as the folks who benefit from this set up would have you believe, from any lack in the education of our middle and upper-middle class public school students. Don’t even get me started on the recent PISA stats. (http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2013/12/paul-krugman-cuts-through-bs-on.html)

    In places like Newton and Brookline, where I now live and graduated from BHS there is the unspoken belief of privilege, power and success that is being shaken daily by the 21st century, post-industrial reality that is kicking everybody’s butt. Except the 1%, “We’re just fine, thanks.” Well, that is just dandy, isn’t it?

    No. It isn’t. Because our children are paying the price for the 1%s bloat. And for our decades of political and moral inaction. The Hydra-like quality of the social-political challenges we face must be horrifying. After all, in schools like Brookline and Newton, we teach these young people to think and reason. They are the canaries in the coal mine. And their distress is felt across class lines. Like their less fortunate brothers and sisters living in economic hardship, we see once again, that poverty is a public health issue. Just like economic distress, emotional and social poverty are real and claim their victims every day.

  • James Clenson

    As a current Newton student I think a few things need to be cleared up.

    #1. I see a lot of people sympathizing with kids who are taking honors and AP classes but saying curriculum 1 and 2 are “easy” classes. I am the type of kid who takes a lot of Curriculum 1 an 2 classes and they are extremely vigorous for me. For me Curriculum 1 an 2 just as challenging as some students think honors and AP classes are.

    #2 All Newton schools give too much homework. I have been in the school system for 13 years (current senior), so you do not have to take it from some parent who is just guessing by how much their kid complains… If you think three hours a night is fair, I would like to see how many of you come back from the office everyday and work on papers and forums etc. instead of watching your favorite t.v. show. Give me a break there.

    #3 Most of the homework us kids are given is completely useless. Please feel free to tell me why LOGS are useful in Math, or the Stroma is useful in Biology, or memorizing the 85th element on the periodic table is helpful… I could go on for hours on this topic, and sure some of them can be debated, but 99% of what we learn is useless. I can not speak for everyone, but this is why we think homework is boring, who the heck cares about SOH CAH TOH (math term).

    #4 Newton is conservative, so expect almost no change. Even though Newton elects democratic politicians, have you ever seen major changes in the city. It stays the same and never changes, thats fine with me, but just keep that in mind when complaining. Complain to the right people, not post a comment here.

    Ok the most important thing,

    #5 MY BIGGEST PROBLEM is that people are not actually listened to in Newton. Why do you think there are so many comments here? Why do you think that there even needs to be an article written here? Its because after all these tragedies not one time have I, or anyone else around me been asked how we can better the schools, or if we have any idea. The schools focus on 50+ year old professional looking, outside hire “social workers,” instead of listening to the students (once again, see #4, Newton is conservative).

    Thanks for listening,
    JC

    • Tyler Gardner

      Easy there, Holden. You, too, will appreciate it all one day.

      • James Clenson

        One great out of school lesson I learned was if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it. Tyler Gardner is prime example of the typical Newton parent. Nice book reference Im sure everyone is laughing.

    • NutshellsGuy

      Well, James, although I hear you and agree with most of it, many people do find logs and stroma to be valuable pieces of knowledge in their work life. :-) I

      • james clenson

        The way I see it, and the way I have been asking for 13 years, show me the facts that say that logs and stroma etc are actually used by many in the workforce etc. and prove that they are useful. So far its all been a blank.

        • NutshellsGuy

          I used logs at work last week. When you graph the amount of water removed by a piece of equipment against the speed at which it spins, you get a curve that spans a big range and it is hard to read the graph accurately. If you plot one of the variables against the log of the other, it is a straight line and easy to read. It also gives engineers a strong clue as to the meaning of the relationship between two quantities.

          I don’t work with bio or medical stuff, so I don’t use stroma at work (except that I wear it in my body :-) ). But physical therapists and certain doctors need to know a lot about it. So yeah, it’s important.

        • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

          Sit it on Mosbrooker’s AB Calc class sometime. He always went out of his way to explain the practical applications of the operations we were doing.

    • ElliFrank

      Hi James. Great post. I agree with many of your points, especially the last one (#5). It is tragic that the NPS Administration’s continued response to these student suicides is to trot out their mental health consultants to talk at parents and students in a PR-oriented, damage control effort.

      If these social workers and mental health consultants were worth their salt — and I say this as a social worker myself (but not one who works for the NPS) — they would be advising the NPS Administration to start listening to all the key stakeholders in our community – especially students!

      Instead, I think this situation is being shaped by forces that were alluded to by Upton Sinclair, when he stated, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

      Keep on speaking up, James!

      • james clenson

        thank you I appreciate it. Well said too!

  • Tyler Gardner

    It’s so easy to point fingers and search for answers when tragedy strikes, particularly multiple times in a given community. But this article is just not fair. I know several members of the Newton community: teachers, parents, students, etc., and I know them to be some of the most caring and supportive people with whom I have ever had the privilege to interact. As someone who went to a “high-achiever school”, and now teaches and lives at one, I have faith that there exists a contingency of people who are constantly devoted to exploring what is, and is not, in the students’ best interest. Nobody wants to see students destroy themselves, mentally or physically, and nobody wants to foster an environment that would lead to an eventual breakdown of communication between teachers, students, and parents. I would like to encourage the above author to revisit this piece and attempt to create something out of the tragedies rather than simply magnify the destruction caused by such events and exacerbate the problem by alienating those very teachers who are doing their best to support and encourage these children by profession.

  • http://waldron-math.com Margery Waldron

    Here we go again. Parents blame teachers and administrators for absolutely everything bad that happens to their children. This dangerous attitude disempowers teens and leads to disastrous consequences. Teens need to know that THEY have the power to make changes in their lives to reduce their stress load… they can take fewer APs, do less extra curricular activities, apply to colleges more suited to their goals and abilities. When teens feel they have no control over their lives they feel powerless and hopeless about their future. This feeling can lead to devastating choices.

    When we empower our children they also learn responsibility. They learn that they can take charge and make choices that improve their quality of life. Children need to be taught that sometimes bad things happen and it is no one’s fault. Pointing fingers and blaming others delays grieving and healing.

    Parents: “When a man points a finger at someone else, he should remember that four of his fingers are pointing at himself.” ~Louis Nizer

    • NutshellsGuy

      Margery, you ought to read the article better. There’s no need to be defensive. It’s identifying a problem and calling for a solution. Saying the following (quote from the article) is hardly blaming the schools for everything bad that happens, it’s just asking the school system to stop avoiding taking responsibility for its part:

      “Of course, some students put pressure on themselves, and some feel pressure from their parents and peers. But the school system must hold itself accountable for the pressure it puts on its students.”

      • http://waldron-math.com Margery Waldron

        Nuts, I have read all your comments and note that you singularly point fingers at school administrators and teachers. You do not seem to be well informed about the vocation or job of an educator. In order to widen your world view I suggest that you consider volunteering to teach at a high school for a week. In my experience educators on the whole are very compassionate and intelligent adults who consider working with children a vocation. They certainly do not embark on this career for money, recognition or gratitude.

        • NutshellsGuy

          Again, this is not about blame, it’s about people taking responsibility for their part in a situation. It’s well-known that many parents are either over-involved or under-involved or otherwise contributing to kids’ problems. And it’s also well-known that teachers are generally amazing and dedicated individuals. But there are unaddressed systemic issues in the NPS, and that organization has been singularly unwilling to engage with parents about those issues.

          I have plenty of war stories about this, and we know plenty of other parents who have their own war stories. And I’m not talking about situations in which the parents are pressurizing their kids, trying to interfere with grading, or otherwise make it easy for their children to get into Harvard.

          There is a condescending, pathologizing attitude toward parents in most of NPS, and it contributes to a failure to have honest, respectful dialog about certain issues of critical importance. That doesn’t mean that parents don’t contribute their own shtick to the situation. But we know that already. What fails to get addressed is the piece that the school system owns. If they would open up *real* dialog with parents then it all might get sorted out. Until then, they hide behind fawning praise of groupie parents and denial that there is anything about children’s education that they might need to learn.

  • ASouthGrad

    I graduated Newton South not too long ago, but have now had a good taste of the real world. I had teachers that pushed hard, but were fair. The tough curriculum and heavy course load just made college seem easy and manageable. A high pressure environment is important to bringing the best out of students. If they fail to perform and can’t learn to handle the feelings that come with it, that pure and simple is a parenting problem. Life isn’t easy, and the ‘everyone wins’ mentality only tricks kids for so long. Once they realize we don’t live in fairyland, the crash can be long and hard. Learning how to fail is as important as learning how to succeed. Stop babying your children. All it does is give them a late start on preparing themselves for what real life can be like.

    Why do I sound so intolerant? South is not that bad. Perhaps one teacher in five would assign what I would describe as busy work instead of helpful work. Take care of that one class, and you have ample free time to do whatever you feel like doing. There are very few “stay up all night sessions” ever required, if any at all. Whoever has the impression that South puts tremendous pressure on its students is simply wrong. I was quite lazy, and as a former South student, would only say something like that about the pressure because I didn’t want to get woken from my laziness. (I did play on two sports teams throughout my four years at South so I am not entirely lazy, but I hated homework, despised it. I also took a couple honors and AP courses, so don’t tell me I must have been on easy street.)

    America is falling behind in the world and Newton is one of the most educated communities in the country. Please don’t ease up. Please don’t think our “achievement based culture” is making us worse off. If anything, we need more places like this in the US. Stop babying your children. Start preparing them for real life.

    • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

      Yeah, there’s no way I would be doing anywhere near as well as I’m doing at school if it weren’t for my teachers at South.

    • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

      Yeah, it seems many people feel school is just a place for kids to spend time. Really, its the place where they are developed. It’s not a daycare center meant to entertain students (although class CAN be entertaining with the right teacher), it is a place to prepare students for the rest of their lives.

    • NutshellsGuy

      You wrote: “A high pressure environment is important to bringing the best out of students. If they fail to perform and can’t learn to handle the feelings that come with it, that pure and simple is a parenting problem.”

      You need to learn about stages of development in life. People are still in their formative years in high school. The brain and emotional and intellectual systems are still in development. There is plenty of time to lose sleep over work load after college (and for some majors, to a certain degree in college itself).

      A challenge is one thing, and a good thing at that. But we’re not talking about having *some* challenge, we’re talking about – for many students – a pressure cooker level of challenge. And it contributes to isolation that is simply unhealthy.

      Furthermore, at all stages of life different people have different levels of ability to cope with high-pressure environments. Failure to perform under those circumstances is not automatically a failure in life, and it certainly isn’t automatically a failure in parenting (though sometimes it can be).

      Public schools need to be able to teach kids with all levels of ability. This isn’t Newton Private Top Achievers Schools we’re talking about, it’s Newton Public Schools. When people attend a school meant for top achievers and can’t cut it, by all means they don’t belong there. But again, none of the NPS schools can follow that policy. So they need to provide challenge in accordance with the ability of the student, and work TOGETHER with PARENTS to make it all work.

      • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

        But it’s not a pressure cooker level of challenge. Unless their parents made them sign up for classes whose workload they simply aren’t capable of handling, no one should be completely overwhelmed by their workload at NSHS.

  • hippo123

    Let me preface this by saying that I’m a current student at Newton South and have (I think) a wealth of first-hand knowledge of the subject that the author clearly lacks.

    The author writes this article from a very singular viewpoint. He discounts the fact that much of the stress and anxiety that students experience is in fact self-imposed and self-driven. The school does not, by any means, force students to take an arduous course load and participate in a certain number of extra-curricular activities. He clearly misunderstands and is over-analyzing the environment in which his son learns at Newton South.

    In addition, Dr. Bacigalupe writes this: “One of the experts commented condescendingly in Tuesday’s meeting that suicides are not infectious.” That expert was Dr. Susan Swick, the chief of Adolescent and Child Psychiatry at Newton-Wellesley Hospital and an incredibly knowledgeable and accomplished person. To clarify, Dr. Swick stated that suicides themselves are not contagious, but rather the outpouring of grief and positive memories of a suicide victim may drive a vulnerable to commit such an act. Dr. Bacigalupe shows a clear clinical misunderstanding of what Dr. Swick said. I wonder if he was even present at the meeting about which he wrote this piece.

    I’m also intrigued by this: “The culture of staying up late to study is one of the first things upper-class students tell the younger ones to prepare for. Their senior peers tell them that if they don’t stay up late, they will not perform well.”

    Having been both an underclassman and an upperclassman, I can say with complete confidence that this is not something that is said more than once or twice, and jokingly at that. Most students learn to manage their time extremely well. They have time to enjoy dinner with their families, catch up on their favorite television program, and even read a book for pleasure. A typical night of a Newton South student is not the no-break, no time for eating or drinking study marathon that this parent understands it (or better yet, misunderstands it) to be. There’s no threshold hour to which students must be awake to perform well on an exam. How absurd.

    I would recommend to Dr. Bacigalupe that he gather a few more opinions on the life of a Newton South student before having the temerity to write a piece like this. It’s full of wrong assertions, conclusions, and facts that a Newton South father thinks he has in the bag from 2.5 years as a parent at NSHS.

    • NewtonAlum

      I would learn more about the author before going on to attack this far. He also had a daughter that finished 4 years at NNHS and has been in the community for years. He has been the parent of BOTH an NNHS alumnus and a current NSHS student.

      Personally, as an alumnus of the NNHS class of ’09, I would also go on to say that I strongly disagree with a great degree of your analysis. He doesn’t blame the immediately identifiable policy structure of the schools; he goes on to disagree with the culture that develops from that. To say what you have said as a “current student” is quite disheartening because that almost leaves a helpless attitude that have kindled similar situations to Newton’s at UPenn and MIT. I certainly can agree with his analysis, especially in comparing school cultures from high school to college, that school culture means quite a bit in fostering environments conducive to open conversations about mental health.

      I will openly admit as a college senior, that I sense college campuses with a varying degree of “overall happiness”. After visiting friends on different campuses for multiple days, it is without a doubt that I come to recognize that they all emphasize different aspects of the college experience. Depending on what those environments emphasize, students will begin to envelop themselves in that experience, whether they like to admit it or not. That is where the obligation of policy structures and key stakeholders come in. They can have an influence on school culture in a college or high school setting by preparing the framework that fosters students’ holistic well-being. As administrators in K-12 or in higher education, this shouldn’t be an option, it is an obligation.

  • JimiBuffett

    As a recent Newton South graduate, I agree with the writer. Newton South and the Newton Public Schools put an incredible amount of stress on its students. There is a strong culture of competition and trying to out-do one another. The writer suggests that families and parents have increased input with the administration surrounding the cutlure of the school and the stress that may be put on the children. However, I would also suggest that the administration also look to its own students for input on how they feel about the Newton Public Schools. I believe there should be a collaboration between students, parents, teachers, and the administration to discuss ways to adapt the current culture at the Newton Public Schools.

    • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

      “I would also suggest that the administration also look to its own students for input on how they feel about the Newton Public Schools”. Well this is always a good idea, and its important to know what students are thinking. However, you could go to any high school in the country and get the same responses: too much homework, too much stress, not enough time to hang out with my friends. I don’t think there’s a single school in America where there aren’t students who think they get too many assignments or that their work is too hard.

  • Recent Newton Grad-Ivy League

    I graduated a public Newton HS in the recent past and still got into a very good school. However, the college process was incredibly grueling. The pressure of the entire system, and the pressure I put on myself, caused a mental breakdown that ruined a beautiful relationship for me, and caused severe depression and my “break” for OCD. Now I am currently being held together at college by anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, benzodiazepines and therapy. I am several years removed from the entire process and healing, but the stress that is created by the social atmosphere of the entire town is indeed toxic. I don’t know if or when I’ll ever be comfortable telling my story. It is a trauma. I send my deepest sympathies to everyone affected by these tragic, unnecessary deaths. I have been close to where those kids have, and there feels like there is no escape. It is terrifyingly real and tangible, and a problem Newton must tackle holistically. The schools, the homework, the expectations…All of it. We become products of our environment if its influence is so strong as it is in Newton. We all have our inner demons, but they can be exacerbated to the extreme in these atmospheres.

    I will say that there is no doubt that Newton gave me a wonderful education and that high school, until everything mounted, was an incredible experience. Unfortunately, we tend to weigh the end of events heavier than the duration, so that is my bias.

  • Lauren Berman

    I’m alarmed and disgusted that this so-called expert targets schools as being culpable for these suicides. Sadly, we live in a society which places unrealistic expectations of perfection on young people. As parents, neighbors, and friends, it falls on us to do our best to level set our children and encourage them to be happy
    with who they are, instead of pushing them to become who we think they should
    be. Don’t use the schools as scapegoats.

    • NutshellsGuy

      Do you believe that it’s healthy for children to get 5 or fewer hours of sleep per night? Just as it has been proven that carrying 20+ lb. backpacks of books and binders to and from school has a harmful effect on the kids’ skeletal systems, so has it also been proven that sleep deprivation and overly stressing kids are developmentally inappropriate, not to mention counterproductive to the goal and just plain harmful.

      Parents have a role to play, but they are not the ones assigning homework and setting classroom expectations. Teachers could set a good example for the parents as a start.

      • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

        Staying up late to study is called cramming and it has been going on for decades. It is not something a student must do if they study correctly.

        • NutshellsGuy

          Words escape me. You are clearly disconnected from the reality these kids face. There are all sorts of ideal concepts we can espouse about what should happen, but the fact is that the culture and expectations are what they are, and these kids face it from all directions. The lucky ones get support from their parents, but that only can help so much. Why does it need to be this way? There are many school environments in which the pressure is truly manageable and the kids perform ultra-well. Read the book Spark, for example.

          • Guest

            I think the point being made is that the pressure IS manageable at South. Feeling pressured or stressed is intrinsically an individual response. You can have two
            people in the same class—one feels stressed and the other doesn’t. There are a multitude of reasons why this is
            the case, including personality, level of preparedness, individual schedules, personal health, family life, social networks, and the list goes on and on. To state that stress should be reduced at South misses the mark. Instead, efforts should be made to investigate the causes of overwhelming stress felt by SOME of the young people in our community, and then actions taken to best protect
            these kids who are most at risk.

            I also believe that schools mirror their communities. Why are there AP courses, honors classes, a multitude of clubs, and a variety of athletic teams at the Newton High Schools? Because this is what our community (rightly) demands. Can you imagine the uproar if our schools did not have this breadth of offerings? These resources provide our students with great opportunities, but participation is not mandated (at least not by our schools).

          • Lauren Berman

            I think the point being made is that the pressure IS manageable at South. Feeling pressured or stressed is intrinsically an individual response. You can have two people in the same class—one feels stressed and the other doesn’t. There are a multitude of reasons why this is
            the case, including personality, level of preparedness, individual schedules, personal health, family life, social networks, and the list goes on and on. To state that stress should be reduced at South misses the mark. Instead, efforts should be made to investigate the causes of overwhelming stress felt by some of the young people in our community, and then plans put in place to best protect these kids who are most at risk.

            I also believe that schools mirror their communities. Why are there AP courses, Honors classes, a multitude of clubs, and a variety of athletic teams at the Newton High Schools? Because this is what our community (rightly) demands. Can you imagine the uproar if our schools did not have this breadth of offerings? These resources provide our students with great opportunities, but participation is not mandated by our schools.

          • NutshellsGuy

            “Feeling pressured or stressed is intrinsically an individual response. You can have two people in the same class—one feels stressed and the other doesn’t. There are a multitude of reasons why this is the case”

            The same can be said about Navy SEAL training, but I wouldn’t want my kid to be subjected to that while in high school. :-)

            The main point here for me is that this conversation is way overdue, and I hope that it can continue with parents, students, teachers, and administration all involved and being open to each other.

          • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

            I was in the Class of 2012 and I never asked for help from my parents, except for having my mother proofread some of my papers before I turned them in.

            The only problems I had with my workload were entirely self created, and I took 7 honors courses and 4 APs in grades 10-12, all while playing sports year round.

            I won’t pretend to be some sort of everyman, but I took just as much work as I could handle, and no more. I could have taken Honors Chem or Honors Bio, had I wanted to. I didn’t, though, because I knew it would be too much work. I could have taken AP Psych senior year, and a bunch of my friends were in that period. I didn’t, though, because it was Turley and I knew it would be too much work.

            It’s not the faculty’s fault if a student lacks the self-awareness to set themselves a reasonable schedule, and their parents lack the awareness of their child’s capabilities to veto that schedule.

          • NutshellsGuy

            You are missing the point. Getting the best education is not about toughing things out and being able to handle a big homework load. It’s about how the brain learns best. Research shows that the optimum amount of homework at high school age is about 2 hours, maybe 2.5 in 12th grade.

            Anything more does not improve learning, and in fact degrades it. Obviously, once in a while is OK, but not more than that.

          • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

            Well yeah, hence my not taking a course load that would have resulted in 3 or more hours of homework a night for me.

            Whenever my homework took me more than three hours, it was because I had spent significant time screwing around rather than actually doing it.

      • Lauren Berman

        I think there may be different reasons that three Newton
        teenagers recently, and tragically, took their own lives. What did they have in common? They were depressed. Were they stressed? Obviously. Were they stressed about schoolwork? I don’t know.
        Do you? Drawing a line between school stress and suicide is way too simplistic, and too readily dismisses the insidiousness of depression.

        On a completely different topic, I’m not sure where this Newton
        South High School is where kids study until late in the night and only get 5 hours of sleep. If my kids went to the Newton South academic sweat shop that you describe, then, yes, I too would be complaining. But, apparently my kids go to a different Newton
        South. If they feel they have too much work and can’t get everything done, or have too many tests scheduled on one
        day, they speak with their teachers, housemasters, or guidance counselors, who are typically responsive to their needs. Sometimes, if they’ve prioritized other activities over school, they will hand in an assignment late or skip ones that they don’t think are important. My kids don’t take all honors classes, and they pick and choose their athletic and after school activities so they still have enough time to get their homework done, play video games, and get to bed at a reasonable time.

        • mwsalbgf

          I think this article assumes that the high school has a homogenous student body; it does not.

          I took all Honors/ AP during the majority of my tenure at South, but I certainly had time to relax and do normal teenager things. Five hours to me was definitely on the high side of hours of sleep per night I would get, but you get used to it. So, yes, it got stressful at times. I cannot say that all South students had the same experience. I think when you get to the narrow group of students who take all Honors/ AP, there is a certain culture of chugging along. I would ***never*** dream of missing or turning in an assignment late. I cannot fathom the idea of going to a Housemaster or teacher asking for an extension or reschedule.

          • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

            You’re casting Honors/AP kids as a homogeneous group.

            My only non-Honors classes sophomore and junior years were Chem and Bio. I didn’t take Global, though, and took Lit and Euro senior year, so I think I had a similar workload to most “All Honors/AP” kids. I played two school sports freshman, junior and senior year and one sophomore year, and was involved with club sports throughout high school.

            With all that, I handed in late assignments all the time, and never went to bed after 1 on a school night, unless I had a paper due.

            I agree about never asking for an extension, though. I was a smart kid, and smart kids didn’t ask for help.

          • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

            Yes, but being an Honors/AP student is a choice.

      • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

        I still don’t see where you are getting this 5 hours of sleep number.

        • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

          Yeah, when I got fewer than 6 hours of sleep, it was because I spent several hours messing around instead of just doing my work.

          • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

            Haha exactly. I was trying to do the math. Let’s say you have 5 hours of homework, which was an average to heavy night for me when I was in high school. This means you can get your homework done by 8pm if you get to it when you come home from school. Studying for tests is another matter, but thats only a few times a semester.

        • mb495

          1 hour of homework per class with 5 classes (math, science, english,
          history, foreign language) is 5 hours of homework per night. Those time
          guidelines hold regardless of the level of the course — curric 1,
          curric 2, honors or AP. If students do something after school
          (athletics, music/drama, clubs, or job), and don’t get home until 5:30
          or 6 pm, add 1-1.5 hours total for dinner, showering, and perhaps
          talking to parents for a few minutes, and you get a 12:00 am or 12:30 am
          bedtime. And that’s with no down time to relax! If the homework is
          challenging, or longer than 1 hour (very common!), then kids who do all
          the homework are easily up to 1 or 2 am. School starts at 7:30 am, so
          that’s way too little sleep!

  • curiosity and compassion

    As a psychologist and parent of a NNHS student, I hope we can move beyond overly simplistic kneejerk discussions like this to more sophisticated and respectful considerations of these terrible losses. We all know there is no singular cause to adolescent suicide; reductionistic attempts at “explanation” or blame for these three deaths are divisive and destructive, only spinning further tragedy from tragedy. Let us come together, not come apart. Let us help one another to heal and grow amidst loss. Let us be better people together.

    • NutshellsGuy

      As with cigarette smoke, air pollution, and toxic chemicals in water and food, it can be hard to connect specific deaths with general causes. But let’s look at the larger issue: do you believe that it’s OK for students to get 5 or fewer hours of sleep per night? That it is best for parents to be seen and not heard?

      • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

        Where does it say students are getting less than 5 hours of sleep per night in this article?

        • mwsalbgf

          I didn’t see that anywhere in the article either. If things have not changed since I was a South grad, five hours is a good night.

    • ElliFrank

      Dr. Bacigalupe is raising questions about issues which affect students on a daily (and nightly!) basis and easily lead to damaging levels of toxic stress. He is also raising the importance of our school district changing its response to multiple student deaths: instead of circling its wagons, he’s making the reasonable and wise point that a more thoughtful, inclusive, and collaborative problem solving approach could lead to more meaningful solutions and outcomes.

      In spite of your tag, your response is to use name calling and insults to put down his opinion. I don’t see any curiosity or compassion in your comments. Perhaps this is a reflection of one cultural problem within the NPS which leads to higher levels of toxic stress.

      Three young adults have taken their lives in Newton this year. (Actually four have, but the other one was a recent high school school graduate so that suicide is being ignored). At best, the only suggestion you’ve made is that we sing “Kumbaya” together and just accept the defensive, exclusionary response of our school administration. How many deaths will it take before families — and all stakeholders in our school community — are welcomed to the table to participate in a more meaningful, inclusive, and analytical problem solving approach?

  • NutshellsGuy

    This pressure is not limited to high school in Newton. It is there in the middle schools as well, though perhaps a notch or two below the excruciating level they obtain in high school.

    I couldn’t agree more with the level of condescension that the Newton Public Schools displays, and their distancing from parents. As well as the sad failure to utilize the skills and experiences of parents.

  • ElliFrank

    I agree with Dr. Bacigalupe’s excellent blog entry that cultural, systemic changes need to come to the Newton Public Schools community. That will only happen if parents insist on the NPS Administration welcoming our families (parents and students) to the table in a more collaborative, inclusive approach to facilitate meaningful change. Teachers and other school staff need to be involved, too.

    It does not help that the NPS Superintendent continues to keep parents and students at arm’s length as he promises changes which never materialize and wouldn’t even address the core problems our community is facing. It also does not help that the NPS’ main response to repeated student suicides is to march out their consulting mental health “expert,” whose main role seems to involve telling parents that the NPS are doing everything they can. Really not helpful.

    As long as the NPS Administration’s priority focus continues to be on liability instead of the needs of students, families, teachers, and other school staff, nothing is going to change. The Administration needs to start listening to parents and students and stop pathologizing our families. The causes of what’s driving these problems is more complex and systemic than can be attributed to student depression alone. Dr. Bacigalupe does an excellent job discussing this here, and my family is grateful to him for articulating these issues with such clarity and insight. Will the NPS start listening?

    • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

      Schools should listen to parents, but that doesn’t mean that the school should do everything the parents want. Often, parents just want their get to look better – as evidenced by the thousands of parents across the country who fight with teachers every day to get their students well-deserved bad grade raised – and do not care about the actual education aspect. Additionally, what one parent feels might work for THEIR child, might not work for another child.

      • NutshellsGuy

        The answer to the difficulties is not to shut the parents out. Not only is that throwing out the baby with the bath water, it sets the wrong example of how things work best in the real world. In the real world – especially business, but all fields, actually – including all the stakeholders is the way to success.

        This is the sort of training that the NPS can give to prepare kids for the real world, not developmentally inappropriate levels of work and stress. If I subjected my employees to similar levels on a regular basis, I would get lousy work and the employees would quit. And I hire MIT, Tufts, and Dartmouth grads, among others.

      • ElliFrank

        I am not suggesting that the NPS Administration “do everything the parents want.” Nor am I suggesting parents argue with teachers about grades. I am talking about problem solving in response to a rash of student deaths by suicide.

        Like the author of the blog entry above, I believe that in order to address this serious problem within our community — one that is resulting in multiple student suicides among other problems that make students more vulnerable to a range of mental health problems — it is necessary for all stakeholders to be welcomed to the table to participate in a thoughtful and collaborative problem solving effort.

        The cost of not doing so is evident with each additional student death.

  • GentleReader

    Dr. Bacigalupe provides an accurate picture of stress at Newton South HS,
    …BUT it’s a big mistake to jump to assuming a direct connection (particularly a causal one) between this stress and these suicides. Just listen to all the NSHS students who are all under similar stress but who now are dumbfounded at the thought that these students would choose to end their lives. If there were such a causal connection between this pervasive stress and suicide, then they would not be dumbfounded at this result. The write may have a valid argument about stress being too great at Newton South, but he should not assume that these suicides support that argument. They very well might have nothing to do with it.

    Dr. Bacigalupe also says, “Families and parents should be invited to provide their views on the impact that the schools have on their children,” and I think this is indeed what happens at Newton South. I’m a Newton South parent, and I can recall several explicit invitations from the principal and guidance counselors, asking parents for input. I have at times followed up on those invitations to discuss my children’s stress, and I have found the NSHS staff remarkably responsive. But then again, I am not presenting myself as an expert. Just a concerned parent with observations and questions.

    • NSHS2010

      I completely agree. I graduated in 2010, and although the stress was undoubtedly there and it was pretty immense, I never once harbored thoughts of suicide, just thoughts of wanting more sleep…

      I think being in that sort of environment when one is already in a fragile mental state could indeed push him or her over the edge, but so could a number of other stressors as well.

      It is a mistake to solely blame a school system that I have found to be a pretty remarkable example of public education done well. Newton has produced some incredible individuals — there are so many, they have a *separate* Wikipedia page, independent of the Newton, Massachusetts page — and it’s no coincidence that we also have a great educational system in place. It’s tragic and nonsensical to lose three young people in fourth months, but it’s also nonsensical to blame a school system that’s doing a spectacular job for so many other young people.

      We already do so much to reduce the competitiveness at Newton South: No valedictorian, no prom king and queen, no more honor roll cards being handed out in homerooms in front of other students, no National Honor Society chapter, no class rank, and, with the exception of 3 AP classes offered junior year, no APs offered before senior year. What else can we do to reduce stress and competition before it actually starts chiseling away at the quality of education?

    • NutshellsGuy

      When I was in high school, the kids who thrived on the pressure and work went ahead and did extra levels of work and extra credit of their own accord. I am not advocating that we allow kids to slack off, but the fact that many can handle a Michael Jordan expectation of work output doesn’t make it a good idea to make it the norm.

      I can’t comment on your experience with teachers, only my own. I have found a lot of apparent responsiveness, but it is usually either lip service or they revert back to business as usual quickly.

      • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

        Are your kids taking classes that they can handle, though? At a certain point, a 16 year old has to decide for themselves what too much is.

  • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

    This is a tragic story, however I am not sure if it is fair to blame pressure. Plenty of students are able to withstand the pressure and thrive under it. This should be dealt with on a case by case basis.

    • clunkburly

      It strikes me as impractical that we can tailor the school experience to each individual student. We need a system that works for all, not just those that thrive under pressure. Besides, self-discipline is a better motivator than external pressure in the long run.

      • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

        The only pressure is internal, though. I’m a recent grad, but I never felt external pressure or that there was a culture of competition, and I never had a problem with getting B (the one C junior year pissed me off, though).

        Of course, I also was pretty…let’s call it “self-assured,” and could count on one hand the people I felt were as smart as me (there was also the one kid who I knew was smarter than me), so I never really felt that it was a competition, because I cared more about being smart and being recognized as such than getting good grades.

      • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

        I didn’t mean to tailor every students experience personally. I meant to watch for signs of over-stressing and depression and tailor the individuals course work to that. I’m not sure how you can promote self-discipline without pressure for achievement. If there are no consequences for not doing an assignment or not studying for a test, how can self-discipline be encouraged? Stress is a part of life and must be a part of school in order to prepare kids for the real world. I struggled through middle school and high school, and often complained that there as too much homework, that there was too much stress, and everything was unfair. However, that is how I felt then. Today, I realize the reason for all that work, and am grateful that I had to do it. Ten years later, I still find myself drawing on that knowledge.

  • newtonsouthgrad

    As a NSHS graduate, I completely understand the pressures that all students go through. The pressure to succeed and to achieve in classes as well as extracurricular activities and sports is very prevalent within the school. Everyone is seems to be constantly competing, which can be both good and bad. It encourages students to work hard on their assignments, but also provides stress. There were plenty of times where I turned in an assignment I did not feel confident about and was afraid that I would fall behind everyone else. Many students do stay up long hours and barely have anytime for their other commitments. There needs to be some kind of balance in order for students to be able to focus on academics but also on spending time with family and friends and other activities. I do not know how much things have changed since I have graduated, but it seems that students are feeling more and more vulnerable now than they were before.

    • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

      “The pressure to succeed and to achieve in classes”. Isn’t this prevalent in every school? If a teacher is not trying to make their students succeed and achieve in classes, aren’t they kind of failing at their job? Are we supposed to encourage mediocrity?

      • NutshellsGuy

        There’s a saying in business, “Work smarter, not harder.” Hard work is important, of course, but as an MIT grad I can assure you that we would have been much better served by being forced to learn how to produce good work without crazy hours than to put those hours in and burn ourselves out.

        Startups notwithstanding, the real world really is about pacing yourself and keeping yourself sane and healthy, while still producing top-notch work. There’s plenty of time until those who choose to take the startup route kill themselves for their dreams. I have nothing against that for those who choose it, but let’s get the kids to that place in decent shape.

      • newtonsouthgrad

        I am not saying that we should encourage mediocrity, and if you read my comment in full you will see that I believe that competition is something that can be good but also bad. I am currently a college student, and my education at Newton South definitely prepared me for the college workload. It is not a matter of whether teachers are trying to make their students succeed, it is a matter of whether they are doing the right thing in order to help them succeed. A lot of students are thrown into the deep end, and end up drowning in work as more and more is piled on. It becomes difficult at times for them to ask for help, when others seem to be doing just fine. I am not saying that the teachers at Newton South did not help me, I am saying that the way that they support students may need to be looked at.

  • http://www.judydunn.net/ Judy D

    The problem extends beyond Newton. The challenge is for a school system to step off the treadmill and say “Enough”. That is a challenge too great for too many administrators, and too scary for too many parents who want “the best” for their kids. It is easy to make the events “exceptions”, and explain away the problem. It is much harder to grapple with ingrained cultural beliefs. I live in Acton which has an equally crazy competitive, achievement oriented culture in the schools. My oldest survived the high school, but did not thrive in college. She is doing fine now. She left college, and is working, and learning more about who she is — something one would hope she had more opportunity to do in high school or college. But when the kids get ingrained into this culture of achievement they learn to disconnect from themselves.
    The problem does not lie exclusively with the schools, or the parents, or the kids biology. It is a combination of factors, that can create a toxic mix that results in tragedy. I feel deep sympathy for the parents of Newton, and appreciate the honesty and courage in this story.

    • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

      You mention “achievement oriented culture”. Should we not be encouraging achievement? Should we be encouraging mediocrity and not trying as hard as you can instead? Life is stressful and not perfect. We need to prepare students for this. If they have never experienced stress, by the time they enter the real world, they are going to be in a lot of trouble.

      • http://www.judydunn.net/ Judy D

        This is the problem with comments online…it is difficult to fully flesh out what you are trying to express. No. I am not encouraging mediocrity. But I am saying we should not push our kids to excel at everything academic. Not all kids thrive in a competitive academic environment, and even those who do, sometimes need more than good grades. Schools and parents focus most of their attention on academic success. My kids were bright, and good test takers. One went to the academic grinder of a public school where the class size was large, and the culture was highly focused on grades. The other has attended a school that has rigorous academics, but also develops other aspects of the child that I did not see with my older daughter’s experience. The second school recognizes that kids may be high performing, but they are not robots. Especially in adolescence, a time already fraught with many stressors, changes, and new experiences. I don’t think we should shield our kids from stress, but are we teaching them how to manage it effectively, and how to develop emotional resiliency? This is not something that we learn innately, or are likely to have developed very strongly as adolescents. Are we telling them to manage their stress, and then judging them as inadequate when they push beyond their capacity to keep up in a hyper competitve environment? Some schools are not just competitive, they are pressure cookers. Until you have witnessed up close and personal the toll it can take it is difficult to see what the problem is.
        I took all honors classes as a kid in high school. The workload I had then is minuscule compared to what is asked of many kids in honors and AP classes today. Schools want their kids to measure highest on the only measure we take; academic performance. But when there is little to no time left in the day for a kid to be a kid—to chillax—then it is not serving them or their communities. We want our kids to be bright, but we want them to be emotional strong and resilient too. Where and when do they develop those skills in a day overstuffed with demands.

    • Shoshi

      I think that in general Newton has high standards for life paths. Yes, we receive great education, but if there were slightly less homework and less pressure(wherever it comes from) would kids still get into colleges and still be successful? Absolutely. Why not encourage kids and show them the VARIETY of ways to a successful, fulfilling life(which does not usually include straight A’s and 10 extracurriculars) by bringing in people of all different professions and sharing their experiences? The worst thing about high school, anywhere, is feeling like it’s the end-all be-all of life, which it is not!! So let the kids see that mistakes, fear, imperfections and the unknown can all lead up to a happy, accomplished, professional life scenario. Teachers have a hard job, but at the end of the day are still consumed by the academic world they live in, and can not really be responsible for giving students all the life input they need throughout a school experience.

      My advice is let the outside, real world, into high schools and let kids know there is no right or wrong way to navigate it. And unless you end up being a chemist, the fact that you got a C in 10th grade chemistry will not, in fact, ever come up at a dinner party.(As is my experience so far. But, I have other things to talk about being a business owner at 24!)

  • NSHS2010

    As a Newton South alumna, it pains me to see my city enduring such a distressing string of events. It’s commendable that residents, parents, and educators are stepping back and analyzing the situation to try and figure out where the problem might be stemming from, but in reading articles like this I’m worried that people are looking in the wrong place.

    Yes, Newton South (and presumably North, although I can only accurately speak for one of the high schools) is inarguably a high-pressure environment that can at times push students to their limits, but the blame does not entirely fall on academics. As a current senior in college, I can say with absolute certainty that Newton’s school system did an amazing job preparing me for higher education, better than many of my college peers’ schools did. It also abstractly prepared me for the hard work and competition that is rampant not only in college, but also in the real world, as we millennials fight for a job, any job; baseline livable salaries; and many other successes that were not once quite as hard to come by as they are in 2014. In the wake of this triplet of tragedies, as we grapple to make sense of the nonsensical, let’s not totally point the finger of blame at the style of educational rigor in our city because it does have a lot of merits in properly preparing students to hold their own as intelligent, strong individuals.

    I think the bigger issue is that this high-stakes educational approach comes packaged within an already generally pressurized culture that in some ways is endemic in Newton, but in other ways is the unfortunate milieu of our time. Wealth disparity is an immediate stressor that comes to mind. The national median household income in February 2013 was $51,404 and in Newton it was $112,230 — that’s more than twice as high. Despite that median, not everyone living in this city is accustomed to that sort of luxury, but it begets a certain expected lifestyle, a lifestyle that, as a teenager especially, it can be extremely stressful not to fit into. To put this into a high school context: All your friends are being picked up by their parents in a brand new Lexus SUV, while you get picked up in an 18-year-old used Camry. This might seem like a small situation, but it’s a microcosm of a bigger way of living, thinking, and acting, that can be unintentionally exclusionary.
    Another huge external pressure, that is not Newton-specific, are social media sites. Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram especially propagate the notion that it’s important to let everyone know at all times that what you’re doing is awesome, and, more importantly, is more awesome than what everyone else is doing. In reality, what you’re doing might not actually be that great, but it spreads this constant need for students to not only be the best in school, extracurriculars, and test scores, but in their social lives as well. The one area of existence that should be a way to kick back and relax from all the other pressures inflicted on Newton’s high schoolers becomes yet another competition to be the best. When I was at South, laptops were not allowed in class and neither were smartphones. I would see the occasional student covertly texting in class, but it was very rare. I hear from some of my fellow 2010 graduates that their younger siblings who are currently at South are not having this same experience. Technology is everywhere, and I believe it’s making it hard for students to actually focus on their education because they’re simultaneously concerned with going to the coolest place for lunch during their free block and Snapchatting pictures of it back to their peers who are stuck in class.

    So yes, I agree wholeheartedly that the Newton high schools are intense, but without these other external pressures also pushing on students, perhaps the educational stress would actually feel more manageable. The important point here is that if we’re going to assess the atmosphere present in the high schools to see what is pushing teens over the edge, which is something we should be doing, we have to look at more than just the educational structure, turning to some obvious outside factors as well.

    • mwsalbgf

      “Newton’s school system did an amazing job preparing me for higher education, better than many of my college peers’ schools did.”
      100% accurate

      -Another class of 2010 alum

      • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

        Incredibly accurate. Thanks to Marder, Jamps and Golding I was simply on another level of polish in terms of writing skills, and it made getting good grades in college (and transferring, thank God), incredibly easy.

        Sophomore Honors English at South is about a college-level class.

        • NSHS2010

          Yes to Golding! (Didn’t have the others.) Literally everything I know about writing an unbreakable argumentative essay, I learned at South. I’ve had to use the skills over and over again in college, but I LEARNED them in high school. A lot of our classes are college-level, and in many cases they aren’t even APs. My senior year neuroscience textbook was the same textbook that my class used junior year of college…

          • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

            Joe Golding is a fantastic teacher.

        • Arts2010

          I could not agree more. I got one full A in English at South, and it was on my senior paper. In 4 years at a top college, I’ve gotten 2 B+’s and the rest A’s on papers. My professors compliment the complexity, yet organization of writing structure, which I learned entirely at south. Does grading need to be so strict? I’m not sure, but regardless, the quality of education is top notch. Its easy to lose sight of this as a student, though, when it feels like no matter how hard you work, it’s never enough.

          • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

            My A in English was on my Macbeth paper junior year, for Mr. Jampol. I was honestly prouder of that than I was at getting published in my first college’s collection of freshman essays.

            The only time I’ve gotten a B+ in college was a freshman philosophy class I had to take for the honors program I was in at that school. Honestly, it’s the only time I’ve felt that a professor held me to the same standards my High School teachers did and I’m a history major, so the writing standard should be pretty damn high.

            I’m at a Top 20 school this year and my professors still complement me for how technically strong my writing is. One even recruited me as a writing center tutor. That’s all thanks to Ms. Marder, Mr. Jampol, Mr. Golding, Mr. Turner and Dr. Okun, because I still feel that I need to tighten my writing up a lot.

    • Arts2010

      This post is so insightful. I think its combination of these factors and the academic rigors. How can we create a safe space for learning at schools, free of these external pressures?

    • mb495

      There are certainly many factors contributing to these tragedies, and the many pressures from wealth disparities are undoubtedly among them. NPS cannot address all these issues, including the wealth disparity issues — those are community, state, national and international challenges. However, NPS can and should address the combination of NPS institutional and cultural factors that contribute to the pressure cooker that is damaging so many students, and they can and should work with parents and students to identify and accomplish these changes.

      Case in point: It is highly alarming the number of former NPS students at good universities who have reported in these comments that their *high school classes* — and not just AP classes — were harder than or at the same level as their college classes! This should not be the case. There is so much research that shows that human brains are not fully developed until about age 20, so by subjecting high-school-age kids to the demands and pressures of college-age kids, we are not preparing them. We’re harming them. NPS teachers and administration control the level of the curriculum — parents can reach out about it, but cannot change it for the school or even control it for their own child.

      Chronic sleep deprivation is also a harm. 1 hour of homework per class with 5 classes (math, science, english, history, foreign language) is 5 hours of homework per night. Those time guidelines hold regardless of the level of the course — curric 1, curric 2, honors or AP. If students do something after school (athletics, music/drama, clubs, or job), and don’t get home until 5:30 or 6 pm, add 1-1.5 hours total for dinner, showering, and perhaps talking to parents for a few minutes, and you get a 12:00 am or 12:30 am bedtime. And that’s with no down time to relax! If the homework is challenging, or longer than 1 hour (very common!), then kids who do all the homework are easily up to 1 or 2 am. School starts at 7:30 am, so that’s way too little sleep!

      Again, the NPS administration has both the power and the responsibility to address across-the-board homework time. Individual teachers are crucial in this, certainly, but it requires coordination to get ALL teachers, coaches, and other adults guiding students’ extra-curricular activities to reduce time expectations. NPS can’t even get all teachers to honor the “homework free” periods! Most do, but it doesn’t take many exceptions to make for a stressful break. It’s the NPS administration’s responsibility to make sure that ALL teachers comply with school policies. Parents can reach out on these issues, but cannot change them systemically, nor can parents control the time factors for their individual student.

  • clunkburly

    I think that it is unlikely for this problem to be solved if everyone keeps denying that they have any responsibility in the matter. So far, I have read comments by teachers that say it is the parents’ fault, parents saying that it is the teachers’ fault, administrators saying that it is the government’s fault, and so forth. Perhaps each of us needs to take responsibility for the welfare of our children. This includes teachers, parents, administrators, the government and the health care community. As long as we continue to point fingers while doing nothing to change things ourselves, this problem will only grow worse. Do what is within your control. Work with others. Our children are our future, and so far our future is not looking promising.

    • NutshellsGuy

      One can only work with others when the others are willing to work collaboratively.

      • clunkburly

        I’m hopeful that people will work together. I think that everyone involved wants what is best for the children. I also think that it will take everyone involved to solve the problems. It has to start with admitting that there is a problem, putting aside blame, understanding the roots of the problems, and then finding solutions. So far, we’ve done step 1, agreeing that there is a problem. The next steps, require collaboration, of course. But don’t say “when others.” Say, “when we.”

  • Kristine R. Wise

    It seems that this issue is associated most frequently with communities consisting of high socioeconomic bases. One problem is that the higher rating of the public education within a given community, the more appealing it is for parents/buyers.

    The subliminal message we are feeding our local representatives is that we expect them to deliver on the promise of that highly rated school system, i.e., we expect high test scores from our kids. This naturally trickles down to our children. We are perhaps unknowingly responsible for the messages that the kids in our communities receive.

    I agree with the author; a cultural change must take place both within the school system as well as within each family.

  • Lawrence

    NO, because there was no indication that the female who had eating disorders suffered from depression or overachieving. But the one thing they all had in common was that they were labeled as having “mental health” disorders and with that comes a flood of anti-depressants and probably a host of other medications.

    These medications are dangerous and as the label clearly indicates, can actually CAUSE suicidal and homicidal thoughts.

    • http://www.judydunn.net/ Judy D

      Depression and anxiety are co-morbid disorders with eating disorders. The rate of suicide among people who suffer from an eating disorder is higher than any other form of mental illness, and is generally the cause of death from an eating disorder; not starvation or other consequences. I suggest a little research on Google.
      You are suggesting throwing the baby out with the bathwater with regards to medication. Just because a risk exists, does not mean it will automatically occur. There is a risk, yes. But if the medication leads to suicidal ideation in an individual it will manifest itself very quickly, and disappear just as quickly when the medication is stopped. One medication might have this affect for an individual, and another not. Without any medication, some who suffer from severe depression would commit suicide. Medications have saved more lives than not. Such extreme reactions to all medications is not helpful. It is merely reactionary.

  • Jodi Daynard

    As a long-time member of the South faculty, I resent the implication that our recent tragedies were due to a “school culture” problem. It’s just not that simple. While we may in fact have a “culture” problem, or a “Newton culture” problem, we teachers are not the ones pushing our students to attend all top colleges or take all AP course or get all A’s. I don’t know of a single teacher who espouses such a narrow-minded and unhealthy view of adolescent achievement. Many families come to Newton with the idea of achieving the American Dream, and many of my students see this dream in unhealthily narrow terms. But I’m not the one giving them those ideas, and neither are my caring and devoted peers.

    • NutshellsGuy

      Hi Jody,

      Do you have a sense as to why there is so much homework piled on? Are teachers responding to pressures from the parents? The administration?

      (We have seen this at even the middle school level. As just one example of many: Several teachers who piled on homework and assignments incessantly, and without regard for student toxic stress, never even returned the homework with corrections or a grade. The students felt that this was a black hole that sucked up their time and energy and gave them no guidance or feedback in return.)

      • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

        There isn’t that much homework, though, unless you take 3 or more Honors/AP level courses.

        I didn’t do much homework in middle school, but that wasn’t because the workload was unreasonable.

        • Esther

          I take 4 AP courses and an honors math class. The amount of homework assigned varies from teacher to teacher and from school to school– you shouldn’t speak for everyone and ignore the minority of people who actually do have a crushing amount of homework.

          • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

            I mean, I took 4 Honors classes in 10th grade (I had Ms. Q for history, and she gave much more work than Rinaldi), 3 Honors classes and APUSH in 11th grade (Jampol’s Honors English is a much higher workload than AP Journalism), and AP Euro, AP Lit and AB Calc senior year, all while averaging over 10 hours a week, all year, at practice for various sports.

            It’s highly, highly unlikely that you either have more work or less time to do it in than I did, and my workload was far from unmanageable, much less “crushing.”

            I didn’t always manage it well, but that was entirely, unambiguously on me.

      • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

        Is there really that much homework though? I think this is a complaint that happens at every high school across the country. Students are going to have to do a few hours of homework a night, a lot of which they will not enjoy. This is just a part of going to high school

        • Ryan Condon

          This is exactly the type attitude that leads to a culture like this. “High schoolers’ problems aren’t ‘real’ problems, they just need to get over it, it’s really not that hard, just stop whining about it.”
          They have to deal with just as much crap and stress as the rest of society, and ignoring that because “they’re just spoiled kids” is dangerous and unfair.

          • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

            But there really isn’t that much homework, and the parents, not the high schoolers, are the ones whining about it.

          • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

            That’s not what I said is it? Obviously, if someone is becoming depressed or having psychological problems, the teachers should tailor their assignments to that student. However, there is no evidence these tragedies were the result of stress (we often look for simple answers to tragedies when the answers are usually far more complex and diverse). Of course problems deserve concern. However, there IS going to be stress in life, there IS going to be things you have to deal with that you don’t want to deal with. It would be wrong to create an environment where kids have no stress, have nothing that they don’t enjoy, and have nothing they have to “deal” with. “They have to deal with just as much crap and stress as the rest of society” this is true. But when you are in the real world, you don’t get to go to your boss and complained that you are too stress and don’t have enough time to hangout with your friends. We all went to high school, we all had to do homework we didn’t want to do, and we are all better for it. One day you will understand this. High school is a very short period of someone’s life…if for a portion of this you have to do homework that is challenging, you’ll get over it.

          • dis

            stress is complex and diverse and I will take a RADICAL leap and say that stress is involved in suicide generally, and that most high schoolers have some amount of stress related to high school, another RADICAL leap that suicides of high schoolers may be related to the thing around which their time revolves. in my experience teachers don’t tailor anything for reasons of fairness (if you can’t finish assignments you either fail or withdraw), you either go to school in the same way as everybody else, you get sent to a support program which comes with a stigma, or you drop out… it makes me sad that your point of contention is that everyone must have an equally shitty time (as americans we may not want to think this way)

        • Esther

          Yes, there is really that much homework. It’s quite frustrating to hear someone belittling the challenges that high students such as myself face every day. I’m on a “break” right now and can’t even enjoy it because of all the work that I have piled up. The only enjoyable parts of this vacation are being able to sleep more than 5 hours a night and actually having time for SAT prep and job/scholarship applications. Sometimes I struggle to remember that high school is temporary–one day, I’ll be able to escape this miserable routine and look forward to waking up in the morning.

          • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

            The reason some of us don’t have too much sympathy is because we’ve all been there. Yeah, it sucked getting homework over vacation, and yeah it sucked not being able to hang out with friends because I had to do homework…but that’s school. Everyone of us who has graduated high school has to to read textbooks we didn’t want to read, write essays we didn’t want to write, and stay up late studying for tests we didn’t want to take. I’d venture to guess that everyone of us is better because of it. Yes, somethings in high school suck – as somethings in college and after college suck- but maybe that is necessary to get a good education. It’s not meant to be a party or a summer camp.

          • Esther

            “Every one of us who graduated high school” is irrelevant here– we’re talking about highly competitive and advanced schools. It doesn’t take a genius to graduate high school and get a diploma, the requirements for that are basic.

            According to US News, Newton North is ranked #35 in Massachusetts, while Newton South is ranked #12 in Massachusetts. My school is currently ranked #2 in Massachusetts.

            My point is, this article discusses “High-Achiever School Culture,” and with all due respect, it simply doesn’t apply to the majority of American high school students, past or present. “High school” for me (and the students mentioned in this article) doesn’t mean simply getting a diploma– it means getting a diploma from a competitve school, graduating with high honors, taking the most challenging college-level courses available to us and excelling at them.

            I don’t expect my high school experience to be a party, or a walk in the park, or a piece of cake. I like to challenge myself, but there’s a point where it becomes toxic. It doesn’t help to know that there are people out there who want to pretend that my problems don’t exist.

          • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

            “”High school” for me (and the students mentioned in this article) doesn’t mean simply getting a diploma– it means getting a diploma from a competitve school, graduating with high honors, taking the most challenging college-level courses available to us and excelling at them.”

            Again, no one if forcing you to graduate with high honors or take the most challenging courses. This all comes down to choice…

          • NSHS 1976

            Mr. NoFighting… your photo would indicate that you are an older gentleman which would have graduated high school sometime ago. I can tell you there is a huge difference in the demands of high school now as compared to when I went to school. I really don’t think you can relate with today’s high school students. If you did, the word would be “empathy” not “sympathy”.

          • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

            That’s Peter Sellers from the movie Dr. Strangelove, which my username quotes. I’m 25 and I have younger family members who are still in high school.

          • NSHS 1976

            Well that explains it – you are not a parent and do not have children … when you do then I am sure you will rethink some of your statements/opinions.

          • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

            I’ve been in this students’ situation. Have you?

      • Jodi Daynard

        Well, I think it’s fair to say that we need to be mindful of how much homework we give, but South students are pretty vocal and open in complaining to you if you give too much. Whenever I’ve given more than is reasonable, my students push back pretty vociferously. Or they just don’t do it–it’s not the biggest deal in the world if you don’t do a teacher’s homework. But while South homework pressure hasn’t changed over the 12 years that I’ve been there, the composition of Newton has, and the economy more broadly has. I’ve often asked my students to raise their hands if they feel family pressure on them to excel, and most of the hands come up. Families are worried about their students not getting into colleges and not getting good jobs–especially the many first-generation families that have had to make serious sacrifices to live in Newton. Over the years, South has prided itself on student achievement, but students have come in highly-motivated, to meet very talented and committed staff. So, yes, the school has been proud, but we didn’t create this pressure-cooker.

    • mwsalbgf

      Thank you. In my experiences at South, even the most “wicked” teachers I had were quite interested in seeing me succeed. I certainly never felt that the teachers were the ones pushing me to take all AP/Honors and get all As.

      However, I do believe that Honors/ AP courses are quite different from their Curriculum I (Standard) courses. There is significantly more hand holding and busywork. While my Honors/ AP courses were demanding, they offered me much needed flexibility.

    • NSHS2010

      I’m glad to see an NSHS teacher standing up for herself in this discussion. I did receive a huge amount of homework from my teachers while I was at South, but it was because I chose to take all AP and Honors classes, a decision that was in no way forced upon me by the teachers themselves. The pressure I may have felt to take those classes was internal. The reality is that once I was enrolled in those high-pressure classes, my teachers were often my biggest supports and most ardent cheerleaders. With some very rare exceptions, I largely felt that my teachers wanted me to succeed, and would do anything to help me do so, graciously writing me glowing college recommendations, giving me life advice, and understanding that illnesses sometimes get in the way and assignment extensions are necessary. I even had a teacher who, my senior year, caught wind of the fact that almost 1/3 of the class had applied early decision to the same competitive university and thus made a rule that, out deference to our classmates, we were not to discuss the results of admissions decisions in class once they were released. There was actually an enforced grade-wide rule that no one could wear college paraphernalia until the last week of senior year, so as to dampen the blow of rejections. Most teachers are fervently aware of what their students are going through and try to create an atmosphere that supports whatever that may be. There’s no credence in blaming them for these tragedies.

      • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

        “I did receive a huge amount of homework from my teachers while I was at South, but it was because I chose to take all AP and Honors classes” I’m pretty sure any student at any high school would say this.

        • NSHS2010

          Yes, I agree, which furthers my point. The way education is conducted in the Newton schools is not spectacularly different than at any other high-achieving school, meaning that this string of suicides must be the compound result of other underlying issues — perhaps issues that were heightened by a competitive school atmosphere, but not ones that were caused by the school alone.

      • Chemist

        I also graduated in 2010 and have never heard of these rules. I wore my sweatshirt, proudly, from the day I got in. College pressure is real and requires serious evaluation, but we must allow students to celebrate their successes. Hiding them will only make for a more competitive environment. I am supportive of my friends, even when they achieve more highly than I do on a task.

    • Earl Henson

      uh Jodi Daynard, unless you specifically tell the students-and they are just kids-that they don’t have to go to a top college or work hard to get an A in your class, you are part of the problem. Do you really think you can sit n the middle of a culture that promotes directly and indirectly getting A’s and going to the best college, and you can say nothing and that somehow signals to the kids that they can just take things at their own pace? Whether you like it or not unless you actively TELL them your ideas, you are part of the culture.

      • Jodi Daynard

        I specifically tell them, of course. If only things were that simple. They’re not. And it hardly helps matters to direct anger towards those of us who know, love, and devote our days to helping these students in every way we can.

  • DS

    This is such a thoughtful essay and rings true for me. Newton South seems to do a great job for the very highest achieving, self motivated kids, but not for the average kid who is made to feel not good enough. We took our son out and sent him to private school after his experience in 9th grade at Newton South.

    • mwsalbgf

      I would strongly disagree with this statement. From my understanding, Roee was very much on the list of very highest achieving students at South. I actually believe that over the years since I have left South the focus has been increasingly placed on average students. Neglected are those who lie at the lower or upper ends of the distribution. Even when I was at South, there was a pervasive attitude from the administration that as a high achieving student I did not require additional support. Instead, I saw tremendous effort focused on helping and improving those who were “average” students. As an AP/Honors student, I felt there was little to no encouragement for me to achieve beyond.

      • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

        Yeah, it was pretty much sink or swim for me.

  • nshsgrad

    I am not one to post on articles like these, but this article made me pretty angry. The epidemic of teen suicides shows that there is obviously a problem that needs to be addressed, but to blame the high schools and teachers on giving too much homework and not allowing teens to have fun is ludicrous. I do not think that the families in Newton and similar areas know how well they have it.

    I graduated from NSHS a few years ago and definitely felt the pressure to succeed while I was there, but I never felt the urge to take my own life. These teens have underlying mental illnesses which need to be diagnosed and treated, but to blame the schools is incomprehensible to me. I do not think people realize that the alternative is to let kids waste away in high school and get into trouble, similar to what is happening in low income communities that are not fortunate enough to have the resources that Newton does. While some kids have a natural drive to learn and get their homework done to their full potential, most need to be pushed and encouraged to to well from both parents and teachers. To take away this encouragement under the pretense of giving them more time to have fun is to take away the likelihood of success. This premise is obvious; just look at the success of kids in Newton as opposed to that of kids in communities that do not have the parental involvement or teachers that care enough to push their students to learn. And despite all this pressure, kids and teens are still managing to have plenty of fun with their friends.

    The only way in which schools are responsible is by not having adequate mental health screening. However, this is not on the teachers who are busy helping your kids reach their full potential. These suicides are devastating and something needs to change, but the schools are not to blame.

    • mb495

      I agree that there are many factors affecting these suicides, including factors beyond the control of the school district, such as the declining middle class and the very real fears of kids not finding jobs even after attending college. Certainly the difficulties in getting suitable, affordable mental health treatment and insurance coverage, even in Massachusetts, also contribute to such tragedies. Teen suicides are problems in other communities and states, just as these other factors are problems. We moved from a town, in another state, where there were 12 teen suicides in 10 years, so we checked whether Newton had that reputation before we moved several years ago (we couldn’t find any evidence of it on the internet at that time).

      There are steps schools can take to help reduce the teen suicide risk, notably taking steps that students get more sleep. Research suggests that starting school an hour later (8:30 instead of 7:30) greatly improves the amount of sleep teenagers get. These concerns should be seriously discussed and considered by the Newton school administration, not ignored.

    • dis

      As a graduate of NNHS and someone who struggled throughout high school with depression and anxiety (as a result of my ADHD, they tell me), I would like to let you know that all of these issues revolved around school (a very, very specific system of “school” we tend to take for granted), and I’m not sure I would have faced them otherwise.

      You say that kids would get into trouble if there were no school to occupy them. I agree that there would be a lot of unoccupied teenagers, and I think this is one of the main stalwarts against even considering school reform. I also think this is a pathetic reason to defend a learning institution-never for the learning we do there (the fact that we are forced to go disallows us even the choice to learn, mitigating the appeal of learning), as if it were a babysitting service to occupy us while parents are at work. You shouldn’t ask yourself “why?” too often while you’re in high school-you might end up on the cusp of truancy (and with concomitant thoughts of suicide-how can I hope to accomplish anything in life if I can’t accomplish high school?) as I did.

      I won’t go into the details of the endless, varied and painfully silly ways our
      school system (since we have somehow lost the power to imagine more than one) exacerbates latent depression. But I will say that it isn’t just the abstract expectations and pressures that revolve around success and the future, simply getting up early every day for an inordinate amount of time-since high school is touted as a kind of “practice” for the rest of your future as part of the workforce-is enough to screw up natural sleeping patterns of people who are still growing, and the amount of time it takes to succeed grade wise means making choices: exercise, recreation, or sleep. These are all things directly correlated with depression… You have reversed the chicken and the egg, since most depressive types are only predisposed to depression and environment is usually responsible for that decisive kick towards disillusionment and loss of mental health. I also sincerely believe that ADHD only becomes a “disability” in the highly mechanized, scheduled, and automated world we start to experience when we hit high school.

      The conversation needs to be bigger. This is not a problem just in Newton, since the expectation of modern schooling has degenerated into mass production of people obsessed with solely with their future career (trying to “make it through” their present) who know how to fill in bubbles. I really liked to learn before I had no choice.

      • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

        It seems like you have a problem with school and education in general, and not Newton South. Its important that all Americans get educated, if we let teenagers choose whether or not they will go to school, we’d have a major chunk of the population left uneducated.

        • dis

          you have a very provincial idea of what education is if this is the extent of your thought on the subject

          • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

            You don’t think a bunch of 15 year olds would decide not to go to school if given a choice?

          • dis

            mary mary

  • CT

    When my daughter, a Newton South graduate, choose to go to a public university, her guidance counselor commented “What, you didn’t get in to any good schools”. My daughter was devastated. She was then embarrassed to share her choice with fellow students because of the counselor’s attitude.

    • mwsalbgf

      As a Newton South grad, I have had experiences with the guidance department. My opinion of them was lukewarm at best. I would, however, be extremely surprised that any of them would make a comment like that. My counselor encouraged me to look into many top public universities; additionally, virtually applies to UMass Amherst. So I remain skeptical that a counselor would say that. I would not, however, be surprised if a student made those remarks.

    • Earl Henson

      Don’t worry about it. When your daughter graduates debt free she will have the last laugh. I’d be devastated if I had $75k of debt for 4 years of college.

  • Bill Schechter

    As a retired teacher, I can’t deny that teachers sometimes pile it on. Sometimes I piled in on, not because I wanted to drive students to the edge, but because of my own passion for the subject. Also I didn’t want to use worksheets and multiple choice exercises. And parents can give very mixed messages when it come to challenging their kids. I did notice that quite a few kids would return after their first year in college to tell me that college was easier in some ways than high school. The daily blizzard of work had ceased. In my experience–and I don’t mean to be engaging in tit for tat–the greatest single source of stress on kids were genuinely loving and involved loving parents pushing kids to get into a “good school.” (By the way in 1973, when I started teaching, kids applied to three colleges. Now it is a dozen…a mini-industry in itself…then there’s the SAT prep, the sports teams, the building up of the resume, etc, etc. Parental anxieties about the Darwinian nature of our society and the real possibility of downward mobility does get communicated. There are other factors as well: The Internet has speeded time up and created untold opportunities for multi-tasking (and bullying). No kid can handle all that is put on his/her plate. As a consequence, cheating is rife. Yes, that’s true. We have kind of lost the notion that education would be a joy and a pleasure, that one should learn for the sheer love of it. The whole “official” state framework is so punitive and joyless. But in all this, let’s not lose sight of mental illness, some of which surfaces during the teen years. Often when suicide shocks a school community, no one sees it coming…not the parents, not the teachers or counselors, not the kids. We should try to do what we can to make high-achieving schools more sane. But there may not be one “solution.”

    • Bill Schechter

      Postscript: In my old school, I recall they tried to help kids with the pressure by offering massage or meditation rooms during exam week. It was all about helping kids deal with the stress. There was no serious discussion about ratcheting down the stress itself. Meanwhile parents kept pushing their kids into the AP courses, and not for the best reasons. Still most kids did really like the school. If you weren’t there a long time you wouldn’t necessarily see how much more pressured this school and many such schools are now. It just seemed like a fact that needed to be accepted.

  • thinkaboutit

    I do agree with the author to some extent, however, I also feel that his view is a bit biased (despite his expertise). Why do the parents continue to allow their children to be stressed by overwhelming / impossible demands if not for a desire to have their children succeed? At the same time they seem to be slapping the very hand (the schools) that are trying to perhaps meet the high expectations of the families themselves. Parents do have options (especially those with financial means) – they can move to a less competitive district, or stay in Newton and push back to the system more often and with a louder voice, if indeed they feel that the workload is too much. I would imagine that many of the parents chose to live in Newton specifically because of its reputation, and that comes with a price, tragedy in the case of these three students. I live in a non-affluent community and my children are very well adjusted when you consider the whole child. They aren’t high performers in school, and are not Ivy-bound, but that is okay with my husband and I. We want them to be happy, productive members of society, whatever path they choose. If you live in a community that values education to the extreme, then you will see outcomes such as those happening in Newton. It’s tragic. At the end of the day though, it is a parent’s responsibility to protect his or her child. I’m not saying that parents of the deceased children are “to blame” – but I also feel that the school system isn’t either. It is simply holding up its end of a rather misguided “contract”, since many parents do want the Ivy outcomes. Finger pointing never works in these situations – everyone is culpable. Value systems drive performance levels. Consider tweaking the value system, collectively, and the students will likely still perform at high levels, albeit more realistic and sustainable levels.

    • NutshellsGuy

      Hi thinkaboutit,

      “Why do the parents continue to allow their children to be stressed by overwhelming / impossible demands if not for a desire to have their children succeed?”

      How do you STOP kids from being stressed by these demands?

      I do agree that there needs to be more pushback by the parents.

      • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

        You tell them not to take the AP courses or the honors courses, that’s its ok if they don’t make the honor roll or don’t get straight As. It seems that a lot of parents complain about how much school is stressing out their kids, but also expect they’re kids to get all straight As in all AP courses.

      • thinkaboutit

        Assuming you are sincere in your question, I will answer it. If not, forgive me for assuming you are. You are right in that you cannot stop stress if nothing changes. It’s like that serenity saying, Grant me the courage to accept the things I cannot change and courage to know the difference. If you know that your child is being asked to perform at levels beyond what he or she can handle, then something needs to change. While I agree that those who tragically take their lives probably also suffer from co-morbid depression or other mental health issues, stress is damaging to all kids. Even the seemingly most well-adjusted and resilient kids suffer physically and mentally from stress – especially when their brains are still forming. Back to the “something needs to change”. Think about this analogy: If you knew that your child was crossing dangerous train tracks while traveling to school every day, and just barely squeaking through as the train roared by, you’d do something. Would you ask the train to slow down? Maybe. Would you ask the train to take a different route? Maybe. Would you help your child navigate his or her route to school differently? Most likely. If it was the ONLY way for your child to get to school, you’d have to re-evaluate how important it was for him or her to get there, and maybe change schools or walk your child there holding his or hand to keep him safe. You get my point. If you live in a high performing district, and you are grooming your child for high performing colleges you need to either find ways to manage the stress (which sounds easier than it is and who really knows if it’s being managed properly) or reevaluate your priorities. It cannot work both ways – at least in my humble opinion.

        • NutshellsGuy

          Well, we live in a high-performing district but are not grooming our child for anything but to be happy and fulfilled in life. It’s still a challenge, and what’s most sad is how unnecessary this is for a child to acquire an outstanding education.

          I can tell you from years at MIT that the people who succeed at the very top are not necessarily – or even very often – those who sweat the most. It’s those who “get it” about what they are working for. That takes interest to the point of passion, awareness of both the larger picture and the details, taking joy in what they’re doing, and yes, some amount of sweat. But blindly registering hour after hour of facts and concepts to pass tests and get good grades is the antithesis of success.

          And again, especially not at the high school level. These kids are still at a very key developmental stage and need sleep, exercise, a family and social life, and enough challenge in their schooling to keep them engaged and soaking in knowledge without it getting to the point of being the intellectual equivalent of a sweatshop.

          • thinkaboutit

            Yes, I agree wholeheartedly with the sweatshop analogy. I would imagine though, that you may be in the minority with your well-rounded perspective. The other piece is that success often comes through networking, and living in a community such as Newton definitely provides those valuable connections. However, as you suggested, book smart isn’t world smart or street smart and will only go so far. Hopefully this dialogue will continue and change will happen.

          • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

            Well yeah, but you don’t need to do that at South. I think South actually does a pretty good job of not being a sweater school. For most higher level classes, you have to develop skills, not just know facts, and the absolutely fantastic teachers are a key part of that.

            South’s environment is actually probably disadvantageous to the sweatshop kids, which probably explains why they and their parents are the ones primarily complaining about stress. The Honors and AP level classes require talent and engagement, not just effort, in order to succeed.

            If a student isn’t a decent writer, they are not going to succeed in an Honors English class, no matter how hard they try. It’s on the students and the parents to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and put themselves in a position to succeed, rather than blindly chasing honors classes. After all, it’s not fair to the kids who do belong at the Honors level for a teacher to adjust his or her curriculum or grading to serve the students who are better suited for the Curriculum I level.

    • Pscle

      “Consider tweaking the value system” You mean voting? What are the choices? I think that’s ultimately what this article is getting at. The whole “reform movement” and all the ugliness that comes with it.

      • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

        I think he means that parents should teach kids to have an intrinsic sense of self-worth that is not defined by some illusory need to get into a “top school” or have awesome extracurriculars.

      • thinkaboutit

        Well, as I replied to “nutshells”, I think you have to consider what you can and cannot actually do to affect change. If I were an NPS parent whose child was being negatively impacted by exposure to stress, I would tweak my own value system that was driving me to push my child’s performance to those levels. That may mean drastic measures like moving, or less drastic measures such as dropping out of higher level courses or taking less extra-currics (which probably feels as drastic as physically moving to some). The point is that something will change in this situation, even if you do nothing. Another analogy (sorry :) – think of heavy loads on a bridge. You either need to lower the load, shorten the length between spans to increase its capacity, or do nothing and watch it snap. Some of the changes are more positive than others. As parents, we have to think about what’s really important to us. While parents are considering mobilizing a reform movement they need to consider what can be done now to make a small ripple for your own child. Then you will have made the largest and most important reform ever. I think the article is suggesting that the school needs to tweak its value system, but I would argue that the school values have formed over time because the parents have actually wanted it to be rigorous and have taken great pride in rigor and the outcomes.

  • mb495

    This writer has real insights about the problems in Newton and the need for systemic response, beyond the current push to tell students they shouldn’t take all honors classes.

    My daughter is a student at Newton South, and there *is* pressure from all sides for students to lose sleep. The scariest is the pressure coming from the Newton staff.

    Teachers give massive amounts of homework, often for the next day, so even a well-organized student has no choice but to stay up late if s/he has any other event that day (sports, music, family activity). There’s also always some teacher who doesn’t honor “no homework” vacations — there have been 3 this year and my daughter’s had homework for 2 of them.

    I’m a teacher. I understand the value of homework, but there are there are ways to make homework “smarter” – to cut down on the scut work and focus on the essentials – but these require more effort on the teachers’ parts and more importantly coordinated efforts across teachers and departments, something which will only happen with administration impetus and support.

    Coaches can actually be worse, expecting students to be dressed and ready to go at the end of study period (so the kids miss much of study period leaving early to get changed for sports), running practices for 2+ hours, often leaving parents sitting in cars for 30-40 minutes waiting for their kid to finish. There’s no regard for the kids’ needs to do homework or the family’s needs for accurate end-times to manage increasingly complicated schedules.

    Again, systemic change on that regard is going to have to come from the office of the athletic director, but the current AD is unresponsive to parent concerns on this score.

    Counselors are not perceived as helpful by the students, since it’s difficult for kids to get appointments with them. My daughter tells me that she and her friends usually have to wait 4-8 days for an appointment. It shouldn’t be news to the counseling office that how students are treated in an ordinary exchange about getting an appointment for a schedule change will affect whether they feel comfortable seeking help there in a time of crisis.

    I hope that Newton superintendent takes this writer seriously and takes a more proactive approach to the institutional problems affecting the suicide outbreak, including but not limited to Newton staff expections that students ought to give up on sleep for each individual teacher and coach without regard to how all these different demands subtract to 4-5 hours of sleep per night, certainly a recipe for hopelessness.

    • NutshellsGuy

      Thank you so much for your great remarks!

    • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

      How on Earth does your daughter need to wait 4-8 days? I would always just walk in to talk with mine.

    • rcc207

      Hi mb495,
      I’m Russell, a student a Babson. Suicide is an issue that has closely affected my life, and I’m currently filming a documentary on the subject. Having read your input, I would be very appreciative to have the chance to speak with you. I think your opinions could be really valuable in bringing some of the possible causes of Newton’s recent tragedies to light. If you are at all interested, please contact me at rchamberlin1@babson.edu. Thank you.

    • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

      If your kid is stressed about splitting time between school work and sports…well, they can always quit sports. Maybe part of the problem is students are way too over scheduled with extracurricular activities. Also, you’re a teacher…I bet there are plenty of students and parents at your school that also complain about too much homework.

      • emilyzola

        So your suggestion is for students to give up all enjoyable
        extracurricular activites in order to spend more time on homework? Great idea. That will cheer them up.

        • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

          I’m saying if they are feeling stressed between their homework and their many extracurricular activities, they should think about rearranging their schedules. Based on the comment, it did not seem as if their kid was enjoying sports. “Coaches can actually be worse, expecting students to be dressed and ready to go at the end of study period (so the kids miss much of study period leaving early to get changed for sports), running practices for 2+ hours…” My point was no one is forcing them to do that.

          • niki713

            Actually, the expectations of colleges, summer programs, and internships are forcing them to do that. You can get a perfect score on the SAT and have a 4.0 GPA and still be rejected from every single university you apply to. And this isn’t just a Newton problem. I went to one of the top schools in the country in Austin, Texas and this article applies to that high school as well as many others.

          • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

            Yes, it is important to have realistic safeties when you’re applying to colleges, because transferring is really easy if you get good grades.

          • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

            “You can get a perfect score on the SAT and have a 4.0 GPA and still be rejected from every single university you apply to”. This really depends on what university you apply to. If you have a 4.0 GPA and a perfect SAT school and apply to at least 10 schools, some of them being state schools, it would be very hard to be rejected by all of them (although still possible as some of the decision making is completely random and based on having a “well-rounded” student body). I know plenty of kids who do not even have close to a 4.0 and did mediocre on their SATs but got into decent state schools and private universities. Not everyone has to go to Harvard.

          • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

            It sounds like she’s a baseball parent pissed off that Coach Jordan’s practices run long, honestly.

            Anyway, I always did better in school when I was in season, because I had a productive way to blow off steam before doing homework.

      • Adam

        Not to mention that without extracurricular activities, kids aren’t getting into college these days. And since a college degree is practically a prerequisite for many jobs these days, getting in is critical.

        But then, they could just skip college, right? :-/

      • pursuedbyabear531

        I’m a student at Sharon High School, which has a culture similar to that of Newton South, and I can tell you right now that kids need extra-cirriculars nowadays in order to get into the colleges they want to go to. Colleges won’t accept you without them, even if you do have the right grades. Also, extra-cirriculars are the only time of the day when you can be around your friends and not stress out about school as much; getting rid of them won’t help a depressed kid.

        • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

          How does the culture of a high school relate to a fact that colleges look at extracurricular activities as part of the acceptance process? That’s the college’s culture, not the high schools. Also, there are many other options for extracurricular activities – besides sports and others run through the school – that are less time consuming. For instance, many volunteering opportunities only meet once a week or only on the weekends. Colleges love volunteering.

          • niki713

            It’s the culture of the education system as a whole. You can’t just have one extracurricular, you have to have a range and the applicant has to show significant dedication/achievement in each one. Sure, colleges love volunteering- they require upwards of 100 hours often, but they EXPECT volunteering. It’s like a checklist of pre-reqs they look at- grades, SAT/ACT, APs, honors societies, and THEN they look to see if you have something really unique, like research at a university or your own business.

          • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

            Another problem is the schools these kids are applying to. You don’t HAVE to go to Ivy League. There are plenty of good state and public universities that will accept students with less-than-perfect GPAs and fewer extra curricular activities. You can get just as good of an education at these schools. Again, this all comes down to choice.

          • Anderson Lynne Mar

            That I agree with! I went to University of Maine. They do not require SAT’s and the tuition is cheap. Apply to smaller colleges that take anything with a pulse. Ivy League is overrated and a debt-trap.

        • Earl Henson

          @pursedbybear “kids need extra-cirriculars nowadays in order to get into the colleges they want to go to. ” ================
          So nobody has ever been accepted to college without extra-curriculars? How do you know this? Because John Gatto talked to Yale and Harvard people who said things like football don’t matter as much as ‘individual pursuits with ‘high danger’ involved like offshore sailing.”

      • dis

        lack of exercise is directly correlated with depression…

        • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

          So go jogging or kayaking or hiking. There are plenty of other options for exercise that take up less time besides school sports. You could even take your homework to the gym, I know I did in college.

          • dis

            Exercising daily is absolutely necessary for me, maybe because of the ADHD (exercising for an hour before I study allows me to avoid taking adderall altogether) and when I was in high school it was absolutely impossible for me to exercise daily, after school I was so exhausted from not getting enough sleep after doing homework (and the clinical depression I suffered meant I was never not tired-no matter how much I slept) that I would nap for hours, waking up after the sun went down (lowering my already deficient levels of vitamin D). basically it’s impossible to take a breath if you’re depressed in high school and it was impossible for me to not be depressed because high school starts so damn early and eats up all of your time. I think you are just here to be a contrarian, so disregard all my first-hand experience with everything this article is dealing with i guess

      • Earl Henson

        I quit track after 10th grade so I would have time to study. Too much time waiting for the coach, sitting around, etc. I jogged on my own time. I still do 28 years later.

    • Guest

      I am a student at Newton South taking 2 AP classes and 1 honors, along with 2 other curriculum 1 classes. I spend, on average, I’d say 30 minutes a night on homework.

      While yes, I do most likely put less effort into it than your daughter, the end result is the same:
      The teacher walks around the class, glances over the paper to see that there’s writing on it and moves on.

      A lot of what high school is is managing your time. If this means that you look up the answer to a question that stumped you instead of spending 15 minutes brute forcing it, so be it.

      That being said, a lot of kids don’t do what I do because of the pressure; it is very obviously there at South.

      I’ve played multiple sports and never were you in trouble if you went to J Block for help and came to practice late.

      • Guest

        I agree with you that there is rarely, if not never, a penalty for going to a study period after school (such as J block or X block, as it is referred to at Newton North) and being late for an extra-curricular. I do however disagree with your point on homework.

        I recently graduated Newton North and, in my time at the school, I noticed that most of my homework assignments were being collected by teachers/TAs, checked thoroughly for completeness, or discussed in class. While there are exceptions to this, I found that I needed to do my homework each night in order to maintain the GPA I believed to be good enough.

        There is a stigma in the Newton school communities to succeed and perform far above average that it turns the students against each other. While students may receive these common pressures from parents and teachers, their peers are also adding to the equation.

        For example:
        I applied to 4 schools my senior year. While they may not have been Ivy Leagues or supreme private institutions, I was satisfied with my choices. Not until I saw people getting into schools early action/decision or with high academic scholarships did I feel the sense that I was lesser than my own friends. When I told my friends that I was going to UMass Amherst, a state school, some rejoiced while others scoffed.

        My point is that Newton needs to take notice of these pressures that students face on a daily basis. It has gotten to the point where they are nervous to talk academics around their own peers, let alone parents and teachers. I hope that this article reaches out to the Newton School District and sheds light on something so evident, yet painfully overlooked.

        • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

          Anyone who scoffs at you for going to UMass is an idiot. It’s a great, cheap education, if you put the work in.

      • zlatky

        I go to south too… no way you have only 30 min of homework a night

      • Lawrence

        What is the propensity to take Adderall and other drugs to enhance concentration?

  • TJtruthandjustice

    This is one of the reasons I chose not to settle in Newton. There is much more to life than test scores or getting into the Ivies, but don’t try telling that to the helicopter parents inhabiting our more “affluent” communities. When it comes to school districts, I’d gladly shave off a few MCAS points for some sanity and well-being any day of the week.

  • http://www.mightycasey.com/ MightyCasey

    I am not a parent, but I was a kid, and a student. In the years since, I’ve watched with alarm as the mark of academic achievement has been increasingly tied to an obstacle course of standardized testing, with both teachers and students winding up face down in the mud. “Standardizing” education is a laudable goal, but each kid learns in different ways, at differing paces. Granted, some of those ways/speeds can be standardized for the fat middle of the ol’ bell curve, but not as many as the standardizer army would have us believe.

    The pressure of standardization takes the joy of teaching and learning out of the whole game. Everyone’s a slave to a checklist, and to dots on a test paper. What we learn from that is not history, or calculus, or philosophy, but the enslavement of the assembly line. I don’t know if I would thrive in today’s educational landscape. I did fine in the one a generation ago, but that was a simpler, un-standardized time.

    • ParallelLine

      Teaching, Learning and Scoring:

      There is a pervasive misuse of scoring as a means to teach and learn. Teaching has become more about scorekeeping. Teachers are viewed more as scorekeepers because the balance has tipped so much toward scoring students. –Even to the point of punishing students with scores
      when they do not perform so well, no matter how hard students try, under
      varying life circumstances.

      There should be a more benign balance between teaching, learning and scoring so students are encouraged by seeing that they have a chance to do well in the game by working hard to learn the subject matter that
      they are being taught.

      To relieve some academic stress, school systems should institute “second chance learning practices” such as by giving all students the opportunity to retake any test or quiz or paper to improve and substitute scores. Students are allowed to retake SATs many times for better scores.

      Perhaps the tip towards scorekeeping is a reflection of our increasing computerized world where scoring anything that can be scored is the norm. And our kids are no exception.

      Teaching should be more about learning than scorekeeping.

      • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

        “There is a pervasive misuse of scoring as a means to teach and learn. Teaching has become more about scorekeeping.” As I teacher, I totally agree with this. We are pushed to teach for the test, rather than to teach, well, for the education. However, I’m not sure what the solution is. Since the test scores have such a great affect on whether or not the student gets into a good college, it would be unfair to the student to NOT prepare them for the test. However, in preparing them for the test, the students lose the opportunity to learn about much more diverse ideas.

  • acorn2oak

    When my son was a senior at Newton North, during the 2009-2010 school year, the then-principal scheduled the National Commended Scholar Awards night the day before the Early Decision/Early Action deadline. About 1/3 of the kids skipped the ceremony, as they were busy finishing up their apps. The principal was clueless as to why so few students came forward to receive their certificates when she called their names. She had scheduled the awards night for her convenience, with no regard for the deadline faced by the students. There is just one example, of many we experienced during our eight years as North parents, of some faculty/staff being rather oblivious to the reality of student life. Of course, there are many faculty and staff who genuinely do care, although we have lost some of them to other school systems.

    • NoFightingInTheWarRoom

      See, you make an ok point, but this just shows how much pressure comes from the students themselves and their parents. No one was forcing them to be “Commended Scholars” or to apply early decision, that’s a choice made by the students and their parents.

      • Jess

        NoFightingInTheWarRoom, I think you’re very mistaken. I graduated one of the most prestigious high schools in Connecticut last year, and there was certainly pressure from the school, as well as cultural norms in my town to apply early action/win awards/etc. My guidance counselor definitely pressured me to apply early action to as many schools as possible, whereas my parents put absolutely no pressure on me to do so. Colleges not only now focus on SAT/ACT scores, but also the length of one’s résumé. Generally at my school, the average résumé would include multiple sports teams, high ranking positions in clubs, and one or more jobs. Top tier schools will generally not take as much interest in you if you /don’t/ have an excessive amount of activities listed on your application. The high school environment is also incredibly competitive (even cut-throat), so if my peers are competing for the “Commended Scholars” award, I’m going to feel the pressure to live up to my peers, especially if we’re applying to the same place (for example, around 40 people each year from my school apply to Bucknell and only a handful are accepted.) In addition, my guidance counselor also put pressure on me to take as many AP and honors classes to increase my chance of winning these awards. If it weren’t for my peers/colleges/my counselor, I would not have felt such mounting pressure to be perfect in the eyes of college applications. For example, a friend of mine who is a senior this year, applied to 28 schools and my boyfriend’s sister applied to around 20. I highly doubt they would have done this on her own (to put this into perspective, I only applied to 7, which was around the average.) Honestly, it is a lot nicer to apply to some schools early action—imagine how awful it would be to fill out 28 applications by the end of January 1st, but when I felt pressure to apply to schools early action, it was NOT because of myself or my parents, it was from cultural norms of my high school, enforced by the college application process. The amount of times I’ve had to console my friends in midst of panic attacks about not getting accepted/not being good enough was too much. Certainly, a small number of people may have pressure put on by themselves and parents; however, that number is extremely low. If I hadn’t faced pressure from cultural norms/colleges, I wouldn’t have played two sports in high school, taken a substantial amount of advanced placement classes, headed multiple clubs, and exerted myself to win multiple awards—all to look appealing on paper to my colleges.

        • Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

          None of the teachers or guidance counselors at South pressured me to apply early action.

          And your friend and your boyfriend’s sister are absolutely nuts. It’s simply not smart to apply to that many schools. I applied to 12, and that was very stupid of me, because the excess quantity it definitely affected the overall quality of my applications. Anything more than 9 or 10 is a bad move.

          Also, colleges really don’t care about that stuff as much as people think they do.

          • Ucantmakethisup

            I agree…They know that this is occurring and they want focused students, not burned out ones. A lot of these Universities are now going after Homeschoolers….Independent learners with a focus on learning. Personally I was shocked to see that, but I think they are getting tired of the “cookie cutter” crowd. When I applied to college (a million years ago) I applied to 4 tops, this 9-28 is totally insane.
            We have created a nightmare. Kids have their whole lives to be grown-up saddled with enormous responsibilities, why torture them so young?
            I’m glad my two oldest had fun in HS and college, I’m hoping the same for my younger two.

          • Chilonit

            I didn’t go to school here but I will have to guide three kids through it in a few years. I loved reading your post because it reaffirms my sentiments. I was afforded to be carefree during high school and go to a good state university in my country of birth (there are some private colleges but they don’t have such good reputations) and finish my studies without any debt. What I see happening here is saddening me; the pressures, the cost and all at such a young age.

      • emilyzola

        You’re arguing just to argue.

  • David Seaman

    I was a public school teacher in Massachusetts for my entire career and only recently had to stop for a severe illness. It is ALWAYS to someone’;s political advantage to bash education and as long as we use our children as political fodder then we are raping them.However, suicide is the fatal end to a malignant illness called depression- so badly named- and there is insufficient treatment, understanding, and respect for this illness in our culture. Almost 75% of teenage depression cases are a result of PTSD- an immeasurable pain- and until we can properly treat and research depression will cling to it’s 40% death rate. Inflexability in schools and at home certainly add to the problem, but as I’ve been saying for 32 years, we should treat each and every student as though he or she has a 504 plan.