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Sultan: High school's junior year is broken

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Image provided by Varsity Tutors shows Brian Galvin, who will teach the company's online ACT and SAT preparation classes, with a chat at the side of the screen for students to ask questions.

Three years ago, a first-year student in my College Writing class wrote a paper that struck me as a sad reflection on the American high school experience.

The student argued that high schools should limit the number of Advanced Placement classes a student is allowed to take each semester. Even those students who were accepted into one of the best colleges in the country couldn’t shake the memory of the intense pressure placed on high achieving high schoolers — so much so that they wanted their own opportunities limited.

Now that I’ve seen two of my own children and their friends go through the junior year gauntlet, I recognize that paper as a plea for help. I remember my junior year — in an oversized, competitive high school — as rigorous and stressful. But, our Gen X experience was markedly different from what our teens are enduring.

For today’s students, selective and highly selective colleges are far more difficult to gain admission than when we applied. The messaging from college admissions and guidance counselors is to take the most academically rigorous course load possible. My writing student described having to pile on AP classes — regardless of interest in the subject matter — to maximize the GPA and stand out among other applicants. There was no time or space in the school day to take an elective class simply to pursue an interest. Taking five or six college-level courses a semester translates to hours and hours of homework each night.

In 2018, the College Board reported that over the previous decade the number of U.S. public high school graduates who took an AP exam during high school increased by 65%. Meanwhile, students in predominantly Black and Latino schools continue to lack the same kind of access to AP classes offered to their peers in predominantly white schools.

This is partly why my student’s paper was so striking. Those from the most elite backgrounds saw these increased AP opportunities as a burden. School work is just one of the many responsibilities they juggle. By junior year, students are also expected to hold leadership positions in their extracurricular clubs and activities. Yet, even that isn’t enough anymore. They must create or implement some new, ambitious program to demonstrate their leadership abilities. For those who also play sports or an instrument, this is the year when competition and training intensifies — not to mention those who compete in time-intensive club sports. On top of this, they are supposed to prepare for and take high-stakes college entrance exams.

How did it become normal for 16-year-olds to work, practice, train and study from 7 a.m. to midnight every day? If adults had to put in 90 hours a week to meet the obligations piled on them, we would rightly call that exploitation. For many high schoolers, it’s just part of the grind.

When we wonder why increasing numbers of teens and young adults are reporting higher levels of anxiety and depression, we ought to look at the culture we’ve created and at the schedules they are expected to manage during the same years when we had time to just hang out with friends.

An exceptionally motivated and bright high schooler confided to me that she feels she can’t afford to waste a minute of her time.

“I have this mentality that I should be doing something at all times,” she said. She signed up for five AP classes her junior year and leads several student and civic organizations. She frequently feels stressed, stretched too thin and overwhelmed. But this is how most of her peers feel, too. Even when students power through it, it reinforces the idea that they must live with unacceptable levels of stress to achieve “success.”

That is also why my student’s paper felt poignant. The writer wanted an authority figure — the school officials — to step in and set a limit. Imagine the backlash from parents any school that tried this would face.

There’s no one to save them from themselves.

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