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It is 6:30 AM on the Tuesday after Labor Day.  I have let the self-imposed September 1st blog deadline slip and I am shocked by the gratifying intensity of my own defiance. Although it has been nearly 40 years since I was a prisoner in a public- school system, the feelings of dread that the end of summer evoked back then, still haunt me. I originally intended to write about financial well-being and thumbed through the September 2018 issue of Money magazine that arrived in the mail, gratis, thanks to my husband’s unused air miles.  In the back pages, I came across an article entitled “The Best Colleges for Your Money 2018”.   Reading it reminded me of one of the best, and one of the worst, parenting decisions my husband and I made when it came to our children’s education.

We relocated from California to the DC area when the kids were rising first and third graders.  Our choice in buying a home was primarily based on limiting my husband’s commute time and situating ourselves near a community college and a commutable four-year school.  Our college savings plan was based on the kids living at home during their undergraduate education. More specifically, it assumed they would attend an open enrollment community college and transfer to a local university so we could all come away from college, debt free and on one income if need be.  That was the good part of the decision and both kids are happily living out this plan.  Turns out our neighbor, George Mason University, ranks 92nd on Money’s list.

You can find Money’s ranking of 727 colleges at http://time.com/money/best-colleges/.  The rankings are based on a comprehensive analysis that essentially boils down to an expected return on investment- how much you will pay, whether you are likely to graduate and how much you can expect to earn when you do.  The top 20 colleges on the list, are the top 20 on almost every ranking. Princeton leads the list and five out of the next six spots are top California schools.  Stanford ranks number 5.   Seeing that listing was an emotional trigger and a reminder of the concerns I had about our decision to buy a house in a “great” school district.  Thinking about the bad part of that decision meant I had to forget about writing a money blog for now.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some big issues that need to be tackled in the arena of financial well-being but, in my opinion, that singular focus, and a ranking of colleges on that basis, makes for even bigger trouble in other areas of well-being.

Let’s begin by taking a closer look at Stanford.  It is apparently the number one “dream college” in the nation for students and parents alike and that is reflected in its 5% acceptance rate.  Being the hardest school to get into, by definition, makes it the most prestigious.  According to the Money magazine article, Stanford graduates earn an average of $73,300 in their early careers. Of the other 49 schools in the top 50, only Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates can expect to top that amount with an average of $81,500.  Those earnings numbers are lucrative and the pressure on students trying to get into any of the elite schools is immense.  For many of these students, they were being primed for this educational path before they entered preschool.  Their family life centered around their success in school and, for their parents, the corresponding financial reality of fulfilling college dreams.   Such parents often take on huge debt to buy homes in the “best” school districts they can “afford”.  The “best” schools mean schools with lots of money and enrichment programs which in turn often reflects a broader community of very driven parents and an edge in the various forms of economic privilege that really bolster a kid’s chance at admission to a big-name school.  But there are some ugly hidden costs associated with a winning ticket in the college lottery.

The county where I now live spends over 2 billion dollars on public education, 50% of which comes from property taxes.  Given the housing prices, finding two parents who work in high paying, high pressure careers, is not difficult.  With so many hoops to jump through to ensure a solid college application, K-12 family life for many is frighteningly frenetic.  The pressures only mount for parents with lesser paychecks and poor performing schools.

What I find shocking, is how so many people fail to see the connection between this frenzied way of life and the collective negative effects that has led to a progressive eroding of what kids actually need to be successful in the long run- enough sleep, good food, plenty of play time and physical activity, relationship sustaining social time as well as resilience building autonomy and copious time to exercise it.  There is a strange complicity among the adults who create the crazed competition that constitutes modern American school life, then turnaround and deny its ties to a slew of adolescent self-destructive and violent behaviors in every community.

School life is painful for many kids, including those who succeed in it and it is tragic for some who ultimately choose suicide as a way out.  Yes, youth suicide is a complex issue. But to read that the Palo Alto School Superintendent response to information about its city’s high rate of youth suicide was “difficult to comprehend”[1] is more than a bit worrisome.  Really?  Is it that hard to see how for some students, living with Stanford in their backyard might amplify the pressure on them to succeed, just a tad?  Equally disturbing was an online news article reporting the suicide of the Palo Alto mayor’s 21-year-old son in 2004[2], which first describes how the devastated family was struggling to comprehend the death and then, ironically, quotes a family member saying there was “… little or no sign of any serious problems other than a concern about grades he expressed at Thanksgiving”.

There was no suicide note, so no one, including me, can ever know what he was thinking when he made the sad decision to end his life.  Regardless, I hate to think about the pain that he was trying to escape, whatever its root cause, and the hopelessness he must have felt believing there were no better options.    And thinking about all of that brings back painful memories of the losses that my community suffered in recent years.  What happened during the time my kids attended high school was documented in a 2014 article in the Washington Post[3].  The title says enough “After six Woodson High suicides, a search for solace and answers”.

I have been reticent to talk about what happened out of respect for the families and friends that were directly affected.  Although my husband and I did everything we could to protect our kids from the pressures of the school system we landed in and I fought to make homework and testing to state standards, optional in their elementary school, I still feel complicit in the tragic outcome involving those six young men who took their own lives. The school system was frustratingly effective in controlling the dialogue, in part because the community overall seemed reluctant to blame the school, or themselves, in any way for what happened.   I was relieved when my youngest graduated but sickened to hear there was another suicide the following fall in 2017[4].   You will never know how sorry I am. We are not doing enough to protect well-being in childhood and we need to re-think the culture we create for all students in reducing childhood to a quest for college.

American kids spend 12-14 years in school.  They have virtually no say in the matter.  They are at the mercy of the adults who have authority in controlling their childhood lives.  Private and public educational systems are ongoing experiments and needed to be treated as such.  We need to be measuring the efficacy of the schooling we subject kids to, but not solely in terms of college admission rates or early career earnings.  We need to look at the rippling effects of the current focus on these efficacy measures have on the safety of the kids.  Student suicides, other forms of self-harm and school shootings all have complex causes but at some level they are tied to the effects of school pressure, the rippling effects on families and the corresponding communities that refuse to acknowledge their collective roles.  It is not difficult for me to comprehend how a rise in opioid abuse might be tied to the rise in feeding amphetamines, such as Adderall, to first graders.

This blog is now a plea.  Take stock of your own well-being and that of your family, friends and colleagues.  Have you experienced or witnessed the negative impact that the focus of an educational pedigree, and coping with the expectations of the adults who are vested in the outcomes, can have on quality of life in the long run?  Well-being derives to a great extent from learned behaviors and societal beliefs ingrained from childhood experiences.  Kids spend most of their time in school with a focus on their futures. Without a more holistic approach to education, we will continue to lose more young people to destructive behavior.   And the well-being of those who make it into the work force will continue to decline.  Please tell me what you think needs to change……

[1] https://www.mercurynews.com/2017/03/03/cdc-report-youth-suicide-rates-in-county-highest-in-palo-alto-morgan-hill/

[2] https://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2004/12/20/adam-ojakian-takes-his-life-in-davis

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/04/29/after-six-suicides-a-school-changes-woodson-needs-to-do-even-more-alums-say/?utm_term=.01cbb007f8f6

[4] http://www.fairfaxtimes.com/articles/youth-suicide-forum-coincides-with-death-of-woodson-student/article_b1faf6e0-368e-11e7-8d1b-67520d424ecb.html