Sweeping courtyards. Small classes. Uniform-clad students with Ivy League futures. The term private school evokes many idyllic images of education and privilege. However, underneath its glossy exterior, this culture of affluence has a dark underbelly.
The Elite Student Epidemic
Student mental health among private institutions is on the decline. These elite students exhibit higher rates of drinking, substance abuse, anxiety, and depression than other teenagers their age. While there are many factors involved, their problems seem to primarily be symptoms of circumstance.
“There is a U-shaped curve in pathologies among children, by class. At each extreme—poor and rich—kids are showing unusually high rates of dysfunction.”Rosin, Hanna. “The Silicon Valley Suicides.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company,
20 Nov. 2015, Web.
My connection to this topic is deeply personal. I am a senior at a private, college-preparatory high school called Pembroke Hill. It is the quintessential model of the “private school experience.” I have attended Pembroke since I was two years old and thus have experienced every side of elite education firsthand––from its wonderful advantages to the crippling mental health consequences.
I do not pursue this project out of spite towards my school. In fact, my intention is the opposite. I love learning, I love my teachers, and I have great respect for the education system I have been fortunate enough to attend since I was a toddler. It is a shame that so many teenagers, including myself at times, associate a sense of dread with the institutions that give us every tool for success. It is because I love my school that I am taking on this project.
Private education is important. However, it is in dire need of reform. Student mental health can no longer be an afterthought, or accepted as a compromise in the process of securing prestigious college acceptance.
In my project I will:
1. Examine the causes of mental heath issues surrounding elite institutions through the microcosm of Pembroke Hill.
2. Present an original school curriculum designed for student wellbeing and success.
What are the causes of the mental health epidemic among affluent, private schools, and what systemic changes can be made to prevent or mitigate the spread of mental illness?
What’s wrong with letter-grade systems?
- Students equate their sense of self-worth with the grades they receive.
- Letter grades hinder creativity and discourage intellectual risk-taking.
- They promote “cram” culture. Students only remember information long enough to reproduce it on a test––they do not retain it long-term.
- They result in a mindset of unhealthy perfectionism, that which causes students to neglect their mental health needs, cheat, and abuse drugs in order to maintain their GPA.
- Students are less likely to be curious and interested in the class material, and therefore, they lose the motivation to learn for the sake of learning.
Class Curriculum and Daily Schedule
Shortcomings of Curriculum: At Pembroke Hill
- 4+ hours of homework per night Junior Year.
- AP classes (some of which could be taken without prerequisites) are not offered until Junior Year. This means that high-achieving students have no other option but to to take all of their AP classes at once.
- 25-minute lunch periods (where 10 of those 25 are spent waiting in the food line). Having such a small window of time to eat encourages unhealthy eating habits––e.g. over-eating when you do not have ample time to digest––that hinder your performance/make you feel sluggish for the rest of the day.
- 8am start-time. Studies show that schools in session from 9am-4pm are more beneficial to student performance as well as physical and mental health.
“Delaying school start times is an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss and has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement.”Williams, James. “School Start Times for Adolescents.” Pediatrics,
American Academy of Pediatrics, 1 Sept. 2014, Web.
“Pressure Cooker” Environment
An Inside Look: Student Perspectives
Three students at Pembroke Hill share their perspectives on the “pressure cooker” environment within the school.
“Regarding mental health resources, one problem is that the counselor’s office is in a very public location on campus. People rarely feel comfortable going in because they know everyone will see them and make an assumption immediately. The counselor is also the first person students see when they’ve gotten in trouble. So they already associate her office with the negative encounters they’ve had in the past when they got punished. None of that encourages students to seek help when they need it.”
“Since Pembroke is so small, there are more cliques and everyone knows everything about everyone. Rumors spread fast. It also means that your academic successes and failures are public information. The pressure to succeed is much greater when everyone is constantly comparing themselves to you. It’s like they’re waiting for you to mess up.”
“Wealthy families also have a lot of influence at the school. Often, kids with last names that carry a lot of power face less severe disciplinary consequences than those who don’t have the same status. It contributes to an atmosphere of power dynamics that was particularly tense during the college-admissions process.”
“The pressure really begins to hit end of sophomore year when everyone is realizing at the same time that college admissions are right around the corner. There’s a tangible shift that occurs. It goes from a supportive environment to something more competitive and isolating. It feels like everyone is racing towards the same thing, and when you’re at a school as tight-knit as Pembroke, you begin to develop the mindset that your greatest competition is not the thousands of other high schoolers around the nation and globe applying, but primarily those in your immediate circle––those whose immense talent and potential you’ve witnessed firsthand.
That kind of pressure makes you think things, do things, and say things that you regret forever. I think the grading system is one flaw in Pembroke’s structure. For one, it’s not a weighted system, so cum-laude awards are granted by GPA regardless of the rigor of the class. Getting As becomes an actual sport, so much so that many find it embarrassing to admit they received a B on a final grade card. The idea was brought up in Student Government to abolish the A- this year, so that 90-92% would just show up as ‘A’ on the transcript––a small change that would help ease student stress. The change has yet to be implemented.
“You can sleep when you’re dead” is a popular mantra uttered Junior Year. At times, students wear their stress with pride––complaining loudly of only getting two hours of sleep the night before. I know I am guilty of doing this. It’s both a coping mechanism and a way to subtly let people know how hard you’re ‘grinding.’ Grind culture is a thing. It’s unhealthy, yet inescapable. And that’s because pressure at Pembroke makes you feel that if you aren’t overworked to the point of misery and fatigue, you aren’t doing enough.”
2. Road To Reform
Model Curriculum: Mastery Learning
My Curriculum Plan:
“Khan Academy View of Mastery Learning.” Khan Academy. YouTube, YouTube, 17 Oct. 2017, Web.
Rosin, Hanna. “The Silicon Valley Suicides.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 20 Nov. 2015, Web.
“Why Perfect Grades Don’t Matter.” The Atlantic. YouTube, YouTube, 30 Nov. 2017, Web.
Williams, James. “School Start Times for Adolescents.” Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatrics, 1 Sept. 2014, Web.