5 Questions (A “send-up” of the regular feature in Time Magazine)
By Executive Director, Jim Cartnal
Jim Cartnal - LCHS teacher and administrator now working at the LCUSD District office on his work with Challenge Success and making LC schools stronger and LC students more resilient, engaged learners.
You talk about “challenging the present definition of success” in LC schools. What does that mean? LC students are hard-working, capable, and curious learners. Yet as they age, they are working longer hours, feeling less secure about their ability to achieve success, and this has manifest itself in ways that let us, the adults, know that many are having a hard time. To challenge success is to first recognize that the current, fast-paced, high-pressure culture results in difficulties for a growing number of our students to keep up with, leads to risk-taking, not thriving behaviors, and overemphasizes extrinsic attributes like test scores, GPA, and runs contrary to what we know about healthy child development. To challenge success is really about widening how we define success beyond its prevailing single academic focus so that students have the time and ability to develop other aspects of a successful life - the ability to be an ethical, adaptable, resilient, independent, and engaged critical thinker.
In your position working at the District level, what appears to be missing in the experience of students in La Canada? Well, first, it is important to celebrate all the good and great that exists in La Canada schools. Great kids are the essential element that make LC schools so wonderful to be a part of. Their parents support us with exceptional volunteerism, with financial generosity, and with active involvement across the District in all areas that touch student lives for the better. However, when I consider the changes that I have seen since I started in LC back in 2003, I see a decreasing amount of playtime, downtime, and family time. This means that students are often so busy that they do not have sufficient time just to be a kid. When I speak with students at LCHS about this, many admit that they are overburdened with activities and responsibilities that they feel they have to participate in just to get into college. Many more share that they had to give up an activity about which they were passionate to fit in another honors or AP classes or join this activity or that because they believe it will look good on a resume. We live in a competitive world, to be sure. But we are starting to hear these same sentiments from our elementary and middle school students who are already feeling the pressure to perform for college before they even enter high school. So, having the downtime to play, to dream, to create, in my mind, foments all of those attributes that will be so necessary for success in the 21st century.
What is causing students to feel as you describe? A whole host of things, some of which we can control, some of which are beyond our control. First, students share with me that they are just trying to remain competitive in an increasingly competitive world. I think what this means is that they hear, like the rest of us, that admissions into the best universities is described with increasingly longer odds. I also think that they do not understand that one of the clear realities that perpetuates this idea of how hard it is to get into college regards the fact that many of our LC students, like those at nearby top public and private high schools, all apply to the same 40 - 80 most selective universities, the admissions rates of some of the most selective, have absolutely decreased over time. What students and their parents would benefit from knowing is that there are over 2500 college and universities in the United States and once one begins to look beyond the top 100 most selective, admissions rates go up considerably. This is why students should consider first WHAT they hope to study in college, consider the problem they wish to tackle in the world, or the area of interest they with to pursue rather than overly focusing on WHERE they go to college. Beyond the whole set of concerns associated with getting into college and finding a good job and the financial security that comes from it lies the reality that many students feel that they are in academic competition with one another and this makes just being a kid, who pursues playtime and downtime, difficult.
You are working with the elementary school communities more in this position, it seems. How is that going? It is really great! First, being a secondary school teacher and administrator for my whole career in LC, I always knew my students came to me so polished, so capable, and so knowledgeable, I knew that my colleagues at the elementary and middle schools must be terrific. Now, I get to see that work up close, and it’s brilliant. The elementary schools are so joyous and filled with energy and enthusiasm. I have also been able to speak to parent groups at the elementary schools and have begun to share with them what Challenge Success is, why we have partnered with this Stanford based program, and how, initially, this will change how we engage in school in LCUSD. There is a bunch more work to do, but parents want to know about the stressors in their children’s lives and have been really warm and receptive to the information.
What do you hope to accomplish with LCUSD’s partnership with Challenge Success? Measurable outcomes that benefit the experience of students. The exact form of this will take shape over time and with the input of stakeholder groups across the District. When considering areas of the school experiences that we can control, we started homework study teams for all five schools within LCUSD, the goal of this work is to review current homework practices, to revise homework policies that encourage high levels of engagement with the content and not merely measured by amount. I also want us to continue to evaluate the effectiveness of our later start schedule at 7-12 to understand how it is meeting the needs of students and their families and, keep it where warranted, or adjust it, as needed. Finally, I want students to feel less pressure about school, to understand that one should only take advanced level classes in subject areas about which one cares, and to enjoy more playtime, downtime, and family time so they can enjoy their childhood in this extraordinary community. - Sarah, LCHS Student