The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For decades, students at an elite school published a map with seniors’ college plans. This year, they decided it fed a ‘toxic’ school culture.

The 2018-19 student editors of the Campanile, Palo Alto High School's newspaper. Top row from left: Ethan Nissim, Waverly Long, Leyton Ho. Bottom row from left, Ujwal Srivastava and Kaylie Nguyen. (Ujwal Srivastava) (Ujwal Srivastava/Campanile/Palo Alto High School)

For decades, the Campanile student newspaper at the elite Palo Alto High School in California published a map spotlighting where newly minted graduates were heading off to college. Not this year.

The student journalists who run the paper decided it was no longer in the best interests of the school.

Palo Alto High is in a wealthy suburb of San Francisco, not far from Silicon Valley and neighboring Stanford University. The school, known in the community as Paly, was rocked this year when a former student’s parents were indicted in Operation Varsity Blues, a massive college admissions bribery scandal.

When it came time to consider its May edition, in which the map is traditionally published, the five student editors had long conversations about what the map had come to represent to the school.

The answer: It reflected what they said was a “toxic” college-obsessed environment among some students, and they did not want to contribute to it. Here’s what they wrote in the May 17 edition:

The Post-Paly Plans Map has historically been one of The Campanile’s most highly anticipated pieces. Though its intended purpose was to celebrate the post-graduation plans of every senior, the reality is the map contributes to the toxic, comparison-driven culture at Paly.
Our community fosters a college-centric mindset which erodes one’s sense of value and can lead to students with less traditional plans feeling judged, embarrassed or underrepresented. This worldview sets the bar for achievement extremely high and punishes anyone who falls short.
We believe the burden of improving Paly’s environment falls on the students. If we don’t shift how we talk and think about college, the culture will never improve. This is the reason we decided not to publish the map this year.
We hope this decision sparks discussion about the values and priorities of students, families and community members. We wish the best for every graduating Paly student in pursuing their future goals.
Thanks for reading,
Ethan, Leyton, Kaylie, Ujwal and Waverly
2018-2019 Editors-in-Chief

They published that explanation along with quotes and pictures of students and staff talking about college and the decision not to publish the map, including this one, from Phoebe Crabbe, who just graduated:

“The moment I said I was going to England everyone assumed I was going to Oxford or Cambridge. Within less than a second they would ask me if I was going there, and then when I would tell them no it kind of just made it feel like my college wasn’t really as prestigious. . . . I’ve always been against this culture, it’s been a pretty toxic environment. The fact that people are so ashamed about where they’re going — do not feel ashamed about that, because not only have you tried your hardest and you made it through Paly alive, but also you’re getting a higher education. And that’s all you need to make it in this country, is to get a higher education. So I honestly think people are stressing over really nothing.”

The five editors wrote the following to the community:

Dear Paly: Letter from the Editors-in-Chief of The Campanile
When the five of us stepped into the Editor-in-Chief role a year ago, we knew the next 12 months of our lives would be a whirlwind of breaking news and deadlines, picas and headlines. We expected to be immersed in the culture of The Campanile and knew many of our nights would be spent in a computer lab with a bizarre juxtaposition between the teenage spirit of throbbing EDM music and an intense atmosphere of dedication. However, what we didn’t predict was the profound impact serving as editors would have on our lives and our perception of the Paly community.
The work and energy put into a publication isn’t limited to the time spent editing stories and designing pages during production. The Campanile seeped into our everyday life, and as we embraced our role as editors, we found that the position influenced how we view Paly culture.
Paly is an incredible school. The resources we have access to — whether it be state-of-the-art facilities, intelligent and passionate teachers or a staff that genuinely cares about student well-being — are unparalleled. We are incredibly grateful to have spent the last four years here.
However, it is undeniable that the culture within the student body can be improved. Whatever you wish to call it — toxic, competitive, cut-throat — the dynamic set by skewed values can result in students missing out on a crucial part of the high school experience: building relationships, discovering passions and developing soft skills.
Throughout our time at Paly, we’ve witnessed — and, admittedly, sometimes contributed to — the ugliest parts of this culture. Paly fosters a goal-oriented student mindset, and we often allowed this mindset to dictate our own self-worth and our view of our peers. As seniors, we have emerged from the dark cloud of the college admissions process and have witnessed firsthand the way that it erodes one’s sense of value and place.
Frankly, no one can be blamed for valuing the glitz and glamour of a prestigious institution or high GPA. But there’s more to being human than achievement — we think the drive for traditional measures of validation can force students to miss some of the most valuable lessons and experiences high school can offer.
The carrot of college corrupts.
Every three weeks, our publication gets to see 21 days of hard work manifest itself in print. This process, which means so much to all of us, could not take place if we were all pursuing individual ends. Being part of a team where every person is integral to the final product has given us a glimpse of what really matters in a work environment. We have not been perfect leaders. But after 12 months full of mistakes and occasionally clouded judgement, it’s nice to know we have emerged more mature, resilient and confident in our ability to face the world.
Solving a difficult differential equation or regurgitating the details of the Crittenden Compromise can be satisfying, as can earning high scores or receiving awards. But there is something equally fulfilling, if not more so, in succeeding as a group and knowing those around you are just as invested and have worked just as hard. The skills necessary to form such a dynamic — effective communication, collaboration, interpersonal respect — cannot be taught. They come from experience, experience which is not cultivated in high school unless students actively seek it out.
The majority of our student body’s current system of values prioritizes a competitive cycle of chasing unfulfilling goals, fueling a rat race that can continue throughout one’s entire life. There is nothing wrong with pursuing prestige, whether it be at an elite university or a high paying job — these things can better one’s life, and wanting them is not a sign of greed.
However, a healthy life has space within it to do something for its own sake, knowing full well that it may not bear long-term fruit. We couldn’t be here, 10 issues in, without loving every bit of our jobs — every three-hour-long video call, every iteration of “Mo Bamba” in the lab, every time we saw our work in print. This activity and the outlet it provides has helped many of us through difficult periods in our lives or academic careers and kept us afloat. Having something in your life you can love for its own sake is freeing.
The burden of improving Paly culture ultimately falls on students — administrators and teachers can only do so much. It is the responsibility of students to spend time on things that matter to them, and it is the responsibility of their peers to not judge them for it. At Paly, we’ve created a culture of achievement. But sometimes, the superficial glory of goal-oriented accomplishment isn’t enough to make someone happy on its own.
For all five of us, serving as an editor has been the most rewarding experience of our time at Paly — it has pushed us to learn and grow beyond what we ever expected. We are humbled to have received a platform so large and hope we have made the best use of this opportunity.
As student journalists, our primary goal is to inform. But throughout our time as editors, we hope you’ve pictured The Campanile as a window into the culture and issues that define the Paly experience. As our tenure ends, we hope The Campanile can continue being the outlet for student voices we love and cherish.
Through administrative scandals, community outrage and celebrations of the best parts of Palo Alto, we would like to thank you all so much for reading over the last year.
Ethan, Kaylie, Leyton, Ujwal and Waverly