Student stress in focus at Jan. 22 School Board meeting

“Don’t stress… but get As” -- students are struggling to process mixed messages from parents, teachers, and, ultimately, college admissions gatekeepers.

School district administrators presented findings from last month’s special workshop on student stress at the Wednesday, Jan. 22 school board meeting. The Dec. 9 workshop was convened in response to information from the 2017-2018 California Healthy Kids Survey and an increase in the number of students struggling with stress and anxiety issues visiting the Wellness Center.

The workshop, hosted by the School Board, drew approximately 70 teachers, parents, administrators and a handful of students for in-depth, facilitated discussions around AP and Honors courses, grading, homework, and academic workload.

“Don’t stress… but get As”

PHS Principal Adam Littlefield presented a summary of the event. A theme that emerged from the workshop was that students are struggling to process mixed messages from parents, teachers, and, ultimately, college admissions gatekeepers. On the one hand, teachers at the workshop lamented the over-emphasis on grades and loading up on AP/Honors classes for grade bumps — “there’s no learning for learning’s sake” — but students at the workshop expressed in various ways that they felt they had no choice but to do whatever it took to maintain high GPAs in order to get into a college of their choice. (“Doing whatever it takes”: Earlier survey results revealed a high level of cheating at Piedmont High School.) Questions that were discussed at the workshop can be seen here.

Teachers at the workshop observed that grade competition starts in middle school. Some workshop parent participants talked about the tension between wanting their students to take risks and experience failure but also worrying about how missteps could affect their child’s college chances. Piedmont’s high-achieving culture was cited numerous times as a driver of stress and anxiety, with parental anxieties filtering down to their children.

Workshop participants debated the pros and cons of eliminating the AP track, or setting limits to the number of AP classes allowed per student, as ways to create a better learning environment, as some private schools have done. Not all think the workload at the high school should get lighter. Kim Fisher, mother of an 8th grader and 5th grader, who was at the Board meeting advocated for the need of challenging courses for her children: “My kids talk about how they can’t wait to go to high school to take challenging courses. I feel like there might be students that would be more stressed by not having the availability of AP and honors classes.”

Some workshop participants cited the use of the online grade- and assignment-tracking tool Schoology as a source of stress, with many saying the ready access to grades caused unnecessary conflict in their families, with parents tracking too closely and students anxiously emailing teachers when assignments and test scores weren’t loaded immediately. Phone usage was also cited as a recurring problem — both as a distraction for students doing homework at home and during the school day. 

Wellness Center sees uptick in visitors

Anxiety and stress are the main reason students visit the Wellness Center, said clinical supervisor Alisa Crovetti. Students report that major sources of stress are time management, mental health issues and lack of sleep. The Wellness Center, housed on the PHS campus, currently sees about 100 regular clients. Five percent of those students have required crisis intervention and ongoing monitoring. Forty-five percent of those students received IEP mandated therapy (counseling, crisis intervention and ongoing monitoring). Fifty percent of visits are drop-ins and short-term weekly or bi-weekly individual or group counseling sessions. Out of these visits, half were self-referred and the other half were referred by teachers, counselors, or administrators.

Crovetti’s presentation stated that during the past five school years, an average of 87 new clients dropped in for services each year. Students sought help for a range of issues: anxiety and stress (50 percent), interpersonal relationship difficulties (19 percent), depression (10 percent), suicidal ideation (6 percent), suicide attempt (1 percent), grief, normal adolescent identity concerns, substance use concerns (3 percent), non-suicidal self-injury.(2 percent), and reproductive health concerns, eating disorder/body image, trauma/abuse (1 percent).

Next steps

School Board President Amal Smith directed the administration to gather more data. Both superintendent Randy Booker and Board member Cory Smegal noted that there weren’t enough students at the workshop. Littlefield said there will be planned outreach to PHS students through a survey and working with them in focus groups are part of the next steps. Student groups will be established in each of the four areas — AP Honors/Courses, Grading, Homework/Workload, and Student Stress — discussed. Littlefield will work with MHS principal Shannon Fierro as she works to create similar student groups at MHS.

At the administration level, assistant superintendent Cheryl Wozniak told the Exedra that “the plan is to integrate the next steps in student stress in the District’s strategic goals in our three-year plan and develop action and services that address the needs identified through the workshop.”

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