Adolescent Connections

What causes young people to decide to end their lives?  That’s an important question, of course, just as suicide prevention programs and crisis hot lines matter.  But it’s equally important to examine the environment, to map the terrain that almost all of our adolescents occupy, because that environment may be harmful—and sometimes fatal—for our children.  I believe that some of our organizational structures, not just our behavior, are negative influences on children.  My particular concern is the way we isolate our children by age and grade, from kindergarten through senior year of high school.

Teen SuicideI’ve spent the last week in and around Palo Alto, California, where five high school students have ended their lives violently in the past two years—and more than a few others have been prevented from trying, often at the last minute, by observant adults.  That community is in shock but is determined to find out all it can and make whatever changes are needed to keep tragedy away.  Experts are conducting an in-depth ‘forensic audit’ of the community’s strengths and weaknesses, with that report due in next spring.

Palo Alto is a high-achieving community, and many parents expect their children to do as well or better than they did. Many kids face the pressures so powerfully depicted in “Race to Nowhere,” the film I recently reviewed here.  In one sense, that film is a “call to inaction” because it says to schools and parents, “’Back off!’ You are endangering your children’s health.” Continue reading

Time to Stand and Deliver

Two recent events put the best and worst of public education in sharp relief. The first was the death of America’s best known schoolteacher, Jaime Escalante, made famous in the 1988 film, “Stand and Deliver.” Jaime EscalanteIn that movie, Edward James Olmos brought to life Escalante’s inspiring story of his firm belief in the abilities of his inner city students at Garfield High School. He did what our best teachers do–he stood up for students, challenging them to strive. Escalante, 79, had bladder cancer.

The second event is a figurative cancer, the inexplicable and disgraceful inaction of an unknown number of teachers and administrators at a public high school in South Hadley, Massachusetts, who were—according to the district attorney–aware of the harsh bullying of a 15-year-old girl by a handful of students and yet did nothing. Multiple felony indictments of nine teenagers were announced last week, all classmates of Phoebe Prince, who hung herself in January. No adults were charged.

Jaime Escalante gained national prominence in the aftermath of a 1982 scandal surrounding 14 of his Garfield High School students who, after they passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam, were accused of cheating. As Elaine Woo wrote in the LA Times, “The story of their eventual triumph — and of Escalante’s battle to raise standards at a struggling campus of working-class, largely Mexican American students — became the subject of the movie, which turned the balding, middle-aged Bolivian immigrant into the most famous teacher in America.” Mr. Olmos, who helped raise money to defray the teacher’s medical costs, said, “Jaime didn’t just teach math. Like all great teachers, he changed lives’.

The teachers and administrators in South Hadley also changed lives, one permanently. Continue reading