CDC to study teen suicide ‘epidemic’

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will conduct an  epidemiological study of teen suicides in affluent Palo Alto, reports Sharon Noguchi in the San Jose Mercury News.  Four high school students took their own lives in 2014 and 2015 and six killed themselves in 2009 and 2010. Most stepped in front of a train.

Hanna Rosin write about the “Silicon Valley suicides” in the December Atlantic.

Suicide prevention signs are posted by Palo Alto train tracks. Photo: Dai Sugano, San Jose Mercury News

Suicide prevention signs are posted by Palo Alto train tracks. Photo: Dai Sugano, San Jose Mercury News

In response to the suicides and concern about student stress, Palo Alto “schools are starting later so that students can get more sleep,” writes Noguchi. “Gunn High School students created a student support group. New fencing rims the Caltrain tracks. The school district and city have offered sessions on parenting and mental health issues. And counseling services have been expanded.”

The CDC conducted an “Epi-Aid” assessment last year in Fairfax County, Virginia, where “85 youths and young adults ages 10 through 24 killed themselves from September 2010 through October 2014,” she reports.

The CDC’s Fairfax study listed a variety of risk factors, including “parents’ pressure for success, parental denial of children’s mental health issues, high counselor-to-student ratios at school, the occasional cruelty of social media and the stigma of mental illness,” writes Noguchi. Media coverage of suicides may have encouraged suicidal behavior.

Asians: Stress is OK, focus on academics

A high-achieving New Jersey school district needs to ease pressure on students and focus more on “social-emotional development,” West Windsor-Plainsboro Superintendent David Aderhold argued in a letter to parents.

“The perpetual achievement machine continues to demand higher scores and greater success each passing year,” he wrote. “The grade has become the end point, not the learning.”

The changes have revealed a divide between white parents, who welcome the changes, and Asian parents, who think achievement should come first, reports the New York Times.

Educated immigrants from China, India and Korea have flooded into the district, which is near Princeton: 65 percent of students are Asian-American, compared with 44 percent in 2007.

At follow-up meetings, Aderhold talked about two clusters of suicides in the last six years in high-achieving Palo Alto (California) schools. Many blame stress. (Most of the suicides were Chinese-American or had one Asian parent.)

Helen Yin, the mother of an eighth grader and a kindergartner in the district, told a crowd at the board meeting that reforms by Dr. Aderhold were holding her children back. Credit Mark Makela for The New York Times

Helen Yin, the mother of an eighth grader and a kindergartner, spoke against the district’s new approach. Credit: Mark Makela/New York Times

Catherine Foley, a former president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at her daughter’s middle school, backs the changes. “My son was in fourth grade and told me, ‘I’m not going to amount to anything because I have nothing to put on my résumé,’ ” she said.

Another parent, Mike Jia, condemned “dumbing down” his children’s education. “What is happening here reflects a national anti-intellectual trend that will not prepare our children for the future,” he said.

The changes include “no-homework nights, an end to high school midterms and finals, and a ‘right to squeak’ initiative that made it easier to participate in the music program,” reports the Times.

 Asian-American parents are enthusiastic supporters of the competitive instrumental music program. They have been huge supporters of the district’s advanced mathematics program, which once began in the fourth grade but will now start in the sixth. The change to the program, in which 90 percent of the participating students are Asian-American, is one of Dr. Aderhold’s reforms.

Asian-American students have been avid participants in a state program that permits them to take summer classes off campus for high school credit, allowing them to maximize the number of honors and Advanced Placement classes they can take, another practice that Dr. Aderhold is limiting this school year.

 At a meeting, white parents sat on one side, while Asian parents sat on the other.

This has been an issue where I live, in Silicon Valley, for years. Asian immigrant parents put heavy pressure on their kids to earn high grades. (It’s not the schools. It’s the parents.) Some white parents worry their kids can’t compete — or will go nuts trying. The pressure to get into an elite college means all the A students feel they’re in competition with each other.

My daughter, a Palo Alto High graduate, was talking about the suicides, which were after her time, with a classmate. “Paly taught me that I didn’t always have to be the best,” she said.

“But we were the best,” he replied.

Teen suicide in Silicon Valley: Why?

I raised my daughter in Palo Alto. The public schools educated the children of high-tech engineers, entrepreneurs and Stanford professors. It was competitive — but also fun to put out the newspaper or compete in Mock Trial with so many smart kids.

In The Suicide Clusters at Palo Alto High Schools, Hanna Rosin tries to understand a series of suicides in 2009-10 and again in 2014-15.

Most of the kids who killed themselves stepped in front of a train.

For the most part, these students were doing well in school, had plenty of friends, seemed to be normal teens with normal parents. One girl had just gotten into the college of her dreams. A boy had just tried out for varsity basketball.

Adolescent dysfunction has a U-shaped curve, writes Rosin. Wealthy teens are doing as badly as poor teens, researchers say.

The rich middle- and high-school kids (Suniya) Luthar and her collaborators have studied show higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse on average than poor kids, and much higher rates than the national norm. They report clinically significant depression or anxiety or delinquent behaviors at a rate two to three times the national average.

Successful parents set high expectations for their children. High school students believe there’s one path to success — get into a “good” college — and little room for mistakes.

Many of the Palo Alto suicides were Chinese-American or had some Asian ancestry, writes Rosin. Was it Tiger Moms and Dads?

In addition to pressure to excel, “affluent kids felt remarkably isolated from their parents,” Luthar found. They got lots of parental attention — all that helicoptering — but didn’t feel close.

In the end, nothing really seems to explain why these adolescents ended their lives, concludes Rosin.

Nationwide, the adolescent suicide rate has “dropped dramatically since the 1990s,” perhaps because of better anti-depressants and suicide-prevention campaigns, she writes. But, in the past few years, teen suicide is on the rise again.

Tiger Moms vs. Koala Dads in the suburbs

School choice isn’t just an escape hatch for urban kids assigned to low-performing schools,  argues Fordham’s Mike Petrilli in The case for public-school choice in the suburbs. Even in upper-middle-class communities with high-scoring schools, parents want different programs for their children. He sees three groups:

Tiger Moms (and Dads) . . . want gifted-and-talented programs in elementary school, lots of “honors” and Advanced Placement options in secondary school, and high-octane enrichment activities like orchestra, debate club, and chess teams. . . .

Koala Dads (and Moms), who want school to be a joyful experience for their kids, big and little. They want lots of time for creativity, personal expression, social-emotional development, and relationship-building. . . .

The Cosmopolitans, who want their children prepared to compete in a multicultural, multilingual world. They want a language immersion program for their tots (ideally Mandarin, though they’ll settle for Spanish); International Baccalaureate (IB) starting in middle school at the latest; and at least one, if not several, overseas experiences in high school.

What’s a good school for some students will be too pressured or too hang loose or vanilla for others, at least as their parents define their needs. Let new charters spring up to serve unmet needs, Petrilli writes. “If one-size-fits-all doesn’t work in the city, why does it work in the suburbs?”

School districts can’t meet every need and desire at the same school, but they can offer choices.

My daughter went to Palo Alto schools, which had plenty of Tigers, Koalas and Cosmos. The district’s choice program includes a “structured” school, which is wildly popular with some parents, and a “progressive” school, even more popular with others. It created a dual immersion Spanish school and, since my time, has added a Mandarin immersion program.  In middle school, parents can choose direct instruction or an interdisciplinary approach in which “a ‘village’ of teachers, students, and parents within the larger school community focuses on interactive, project-based, experiential learning through hands-on experiences and field trips.”

Affluent parents won’t lead the charge for suburban charter schools, predicts Ed Sector’s Kris Amundson. “For them, choice is already a reality.”

College-prep for all — with easier math

Math teachers at my daughter’s old high school oppose a plan to require all students to pass college-prep classes required for admission to California universities, known as A-G courses. They say some Palo Alto High students — disproportionately black, Hispanic and disabled — can’t pass the school’s demanding Algebra II class, which requires more than the UC/CSU standard.  Water it down to the minimal level and students will end up in remedial math in college, the teachers warn.

The department chair, Radu Toma, wrote the letter (posted on, which is signed by his colleagues. He taught my daughter Geometry in ninth grade and AP Calculus in 12th grade. Her Algebra II and pre-calc teachers signed too.

The math teachers are snobs who only want to teach advanced classes, argues LaToya Baldwin Clark in the Palo Alto Weekly. Require A-G for graduation, she writes, and create an easier Algebra II class for average students who don’t have parents who can tutor them — or pay for tutoring.

By the department’s own admission, even the regular lane Algebra II class greatly exceeds the UC/CSU. In the view of Toma and his colleagues, “diluting the standards in our regular lane to basic benchmarks which might allow every student to pass Algebra II would end up hurting the district’s reputation.” The department refuses to teach an Algebra II that satisfies UC/CSU requirements that students can actually pass. And where does the Paly math department think those students who fail to complete Algebra II should go, rather than to college? They can “go on to community colleges or jobs for which district prepares them better than most districts.”

The reputation of a high school is enhanced when all students go to four-year colleges.

Last year, 85 percent of all high school graduates in the district met the UC/CSU requirements. But only 5 percent of special-ed students, 15 percent of blacks and 40 percent of Hispanic graduates were eligible for state universities.

Many of the black and Hispanic students have transferred from neighboring East Palo Alto, a low-income and working-class town, under a desegregation agreement. Many of the Palo Alto students are the children of very well-educated parents who work in high-tech or at Stanford. There’s no question that Palo Alto’s two high schools are designed to prepare students for very competitive colleges and universities.

The local community college, Foothill, is one of the best in the state. But graduation rates are low for community college students. Starting at a four-year university — San Jose State is the likely choice — would raise the odds of earning a bachelor’s degree.

But we’re still talking about long odds. Most remedial math students never earn a degree.

If a basic Algebra II is created, it should be aligned with college placement tests, so students know if they’re on track to take college-level or remedial classes. If the high school maintains high standards in its regular-lane Algebra II, then teachers need a strategy to help math-challenged students pass.

There’s another option: Work with Foothill to create a career-prep track. Community colleges offer programs that qualify students for a “middle-skill” job in two years or less. Some require advanced algebra, but others do not. But this would be seen as setting low expectations for other people’s kids. It wouldn’t fly.


Elementary math isn't easy

What’s Sophisticated about Elementary Mathematics? Plenty, writes Hung-Hsi Wu in American Educator.

. . . starting no later than fourth grade, math should be taught by math teachers (who teach only math). Teaching elementary math in a way that prepares students for algebra is more challenging than many people realize. Given the deep content knowledge that teaching math requires—not to mention the expertise that teaching reading demands—it’s time to reconsider the generalist elementary teacher’s role.

Many elementary teachers weren’t good in math and don’t like it.

In affluent, highly educated Palo Alto, 57 percent of parents provide extra help in math to their elementary school children, a survey found. Parents pay for Kumon classes, Score’s computer-assisted learning or other forms of tutoring. Despite protests from some parents, the district has adopted Everyday Math. There are reports more parents are hiring tutors to make sure their children learn the basics.