Local student challenges high-school stress

November 3, 2013

Student critiques of adult cluelessness have long been as much a part of high school as Friday night football and backpacks. My best friend in high school, Dan Cummings, was suspended for publishing an underground newspaper eviscerating how our school was run.

Maddy King, a junior at Fairfax County’s James Madison High School in Vienna, was similarly moved to vent recently, but being a teacher’s daughter and a staffer for the official school newspaper, she opted for a long, thoughtful letter to Principal Mark Merrell. When posted on the newspaper Web site, the letter created a sensation. She exposed issues that often infuriate students and yet are blithely overlooked by policymakers trying to upgrade the U.S. secondary school system.

King signed her letter “A Middleman,” her term for conscientious average students who are neither stars nor troublemakers. “There are more of us than anyone else,” she said. “But you don’t see us.”

No. 1 on King’s list of complaints was a precious commodity for teenagers: free time. In King’s view, Merrell erred in altering the student assistance period (SAP), which had allowed students a half-hour each day to check in with teachers, catch up on work or just hang out with friends in the library or cafeteria. After much study, Merrell decided it had become too much of a recess without a purpose, so now students must spend the free period in a designated classroom and can leave only if they have signed permission from a teacher.

“You need to let us balance ourselves, Mr. Merrell,” King wrote. “We cannot go on like this, work work work.”

She torched adults for resisting efforts to give high-schoolers a later starting time so they could get more sleep. She took that critique an unusual step further, suggesting that the heavy homework keeping them awake could be reduced with no loss of learning. “If you could talk to the teaching staff as a whole — let them know that we do not need thirty-six math problems if we’ve grasped the concept after nine,” she said. “What we need is sleep.”

Then she got to the core of the problem: Her school and most others in this region have a standard of academic diligence far above the U.S. norm. That brings stress. King said she loves animals and grew up wanting to be a farmer. But someone told her that farming was not “financially stable.” Success to her is “to try at something, and have it go as planned, and feel fulfilled.”

But in her region, she said, success means “to make six figures and beat out all the mediocre people behind you and have an office with your various degrees plastering the walls. . . . Why do we have to choose between good grades and our mental health?”

That is not an American problem. It is an affluent American suburban problem. Only about 10 percent of U.S. high schools operate at the high academic level typical of Washington area schools. The average U.S. high school student does less than an hour of homework a day and has at least two or three hours of free time daily for TV, video games, whatever.

King, with her 3.6 grade-point average, is in the middle of her class only because an extraordinary 24 percent of this year’s graduates, because of Advanced Placement course extra credit, had GPAs of 4.0 or higher.

Merrell is a successful, 13-year veteran of running Madison. He said “my community has very high expectations for their children and thus that translates into very high academic expectations at the school.”

That is not going to change. If I were a Madison parent or student, I would not want it to. Are there other ways to help “Middlemen” like King learn without going nuts?

E-mail me, and I will report back your best ideas.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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