In 2017, a New York Times article depicted Lexington as a community reeling from student suicide, depression, and loss, presumably from the high-pressured culture pervading its households and school system.
In the years since, Lexington has been reckoning with its student stress issue. The article described the creation of the Rock Room as one of the ways students themselves were trying to change that culture. But five years later, the Rock Room is desolate and closed due to the pandemic, the library is packed with kids frantically catching up on their work, and the faces of many high school students are etched with the aftermath of late-night cramming and burnout.
Now, the question is, what has changed since 2017?
Addressing student stress for the youngest learners
In Lexington, it is not uncommon to hear an elementary school student discussing their college ambitions with their peers.
“These conversations start very early here,” said Sara Cuthbertson, chair of the Lexington School Committee. She knows this from personal experience: Despite never bringing up college with her own children, they have broached the subject with her. “My rising 5th grader said to me, ‘Will I go to MIT or Harvard?,’” she said. “The fact that we haven’t talked about it in our house means they are talking about it in school [with their peers].”
These discussions in Lexington households don’t necessarily begin intentionally. For instance, children may form impressions as they watch older siblings navigate the college application process. “They see what’s going on when their older siblings are going through the college application process and they learn really quickly that this is serious business,” said Kathleen Lenihan, a member and clerk of the Lexington School Committee.
The School Committee has tried to create a lower-pressure elementary school culture. In 2019, members unanimously approved a policy that essentially eliminated written homework for students in grades K-4 with the hope of alleviating stress from an early age and redefining the value of learning for students.
That policy was years in the making. Superintendent Julie Hackett took the helm of Lexington Public Schools in July 2018, just as the district was wrapping up a two-year pilot at Estabrook to gauge the benefits for students of focusing elementary homework on reading.
“A lot of people were sort of clamoring for more family time and feeling like kids were stressed out,” Hackett said. In her view, the new homework policy “was a tangible lever of change for people.”
The Estabrook pilot suggested mixed, but generally positive findings about the direct impact of changing homework policy on student stress. In the 2016-17 school year, Year One of the pilot, just 8.7% of surveyed 4th and 5th grade students recalled worrying “a lot” about homework. Another 35.3% of students “worried a little” about homework, while 56.1% of students “did not worry about homework at all.”
Among caregivers and parents surveyed, 42.4% responded that in the first year of the pilot, their child’s stress level was “better” or “a lot better” than previous years, while 52.8% did not observe a change. A small minority, 4.8%, observed that their child’s stress was “worse” or “a lot worse,” which increased to 6.6% in the second year of the pilot.
The benefits of the policy change extend beyond alleviating student stress. According to Lenihan, “[homework] wasn’t helping children academically.” The pilot validated that elementary students with more time on their hands will do more reading, which “is the best thing elementary school kids can be doing,” she added. After Year One of the pilot, 58.8% of students reported they read more than they had before the no-homework policy. And during Year Two of the pilot, 38.2% of parents and caregivers reported that their child’s “engagement and level of interest in learning” was “better” or “a lot better” compared to previous years.
Although the policy initially stimulated some debate over whether it would set students back, those concerns have, for the most part, subsided; the policy does not completely disregard the value of homework, but instead allows educators to decide when it is necessary. That said, homework levels and their relationship to student stress still came up at a Chinese American Association of Lexington (CAAL) forum during the contested 2022 School Committee election, when the moderator noted that “The complaint about academic pressure in high school often stems from the problematic transition from the middle school to high school, because there’s so little homework and less demanding educational requirements in elementary and middle school.”
Hackett said that generally, to date, issues with the homework policy have “worked [themselves] out through setting clear boundaries and communicating with teachers about what is permissible and [communicating] with family.”
Tackling the LHS curriculum
For high school students, who often focus solely on getting accepted to a top college, alleviating stress by “redefining success” (both a buzzword and an explicitly stated goal among Lexington School Committee members) presents more of a challenge.
Nonetheless, the School Committee hopes that redefining Lexington High School graduation requirements can be an important concrete step toward redefining success.
Members are currently in the early stages of exploring ways to redesign LHS graduation criteria, which have remained unchanged since the ’90s and are more stringent than state requirements on multiple fronts.
Two substantial changes under consideration: Reducing the science and social studies requirements from four years to three years, which would align with MassCore requirements and give students more flexibility in their course choices, as previously reported.
For instance, while all 9th graders currently take Environmental Earth Science, Lenihan believes “we would benefit if freshman year, instead of Earth Science, maybe students had the option of Biology or Physics.”
When LHS Principal Andrew Stephens and Director of Secondary Education Jennifer Gaudet first recommended these changes at a meeting in April, School Committee members stressed that they intend to revisit this topic at future meetings and gather much more community feedback before taking any action. Stephens and Gaudet said that if ultimately adopted after a lengthy community input process, including the establishment of a Community Input Team (CIT), these changes could go into effect beginning with the LHS Class of 2027.
During their presentation, Stephens and Gaudet directly engaged with the difference between the LHS community’s current definitions of success, and what success “should be.” In discussions with LHS students, staff, parents, leadership and other stakeholders, Stephens and Gaudet found that students typically enter LHS with a preconceived idea of success, which includes high grades, an absence of failure and an emphasis on quantity over quality. On the other hand, they said stakeholders reported that success should be a more personal achievement, involving a focus on process rather than results, permitting students to be themselves and build self-confidence, and pursuing challenges out of genuine interests rather than a sense of obligation.
According to Cuthbertson, “changing the graduation requirements will be a good first step” toward decreasing student stress.
Beyond the classroom
The classroom isn’t the only place student stress takes root.
Well-meaning parents, many of whom have attained advanced degrees in their fields and hold distinguished, high-pressure jobs themselves, may set expectations for their children just by their example.
“Parents invest time, money and emotional capital into their children, and what you see in school is just the academic portion of it,” said Deepika Sawhney, Vice Chair of the School Committee. In fact, Sawhney said that when she undertook personal research several years ago, she found that the GDP for enrichment programs in Lexington, from sports, to arts, to test prep and academic extras, was in the millions of dollars. While Sawhney noted that her specific findings represented “a very rough estimate many years ago with many assumptions [that] would not be useful today,” a staggering willingness and ability to invest in student extracurriculars remain embedded in the community. “Parents are so hard-working in all respects,” Sawhney said, leading them to invest heavily in their children’s futures from an early age.
Lenihan observed that high achievement is profoundly ingrained in a region dominated by some of the top universities in the world. “In our leafy Boston suburbs there’s just that pressure, that emphasis put on doing very well in school, with the goal of getting into a highly selective college,” she said.
Hackett agreed that Lexington’s high-stress environment stems from families and a community-wide culture. Students in the past have told her, “‘my teachers are supportive, they tell me, don’t worry about it, they tell me that an A isn’t everything, don’t stress. And I say to them, could you go tell that to my mom, or my dad, or my caregiver?’” Hackett said.
In a town with as high-achieving a pool of individuals as Lexington, “it’s really difficult to turn down the stress levels when you have a collection of individuals who are wanting to achieve…at, not just high levels, but super high levels.”
Addressing such a deeply-entrenched mindset within the community, from Hackett’s perspective, requires a balance of respecting familial boundaries and thoughtfully communicating with families. “We want to be respectful of what the family’s values are, and at the same time, help people understand as parents – and I’m speaking as one right now – sometimes [kids’] pathways are different,” she said.
Students weigh in
Student reports mirrored many of the School Committee’s observations.
Roger Li, a rising sophomore, affirmed that the process of thinking about college and finding activities begins in earnest as soon as students enter LHS. Li suggested that LHS’s top-notch reputation in the state – and nation – attracts parents who want high-achieving children.
“We’re a very top-tier high school, so a lot of …parents instill this wanting to succeed academically, which includes getting into the best college since getting into good colleges looks good on job applications,” Li said.
While LHS students agree that the student body is very focused on getting into a “top” university, they also acknowledge that the LHS counselors encourage students to prioritize finding the best college fit for them, regardless of prestige. But that guidance alone, however well-intentioned, does not stop students from fixating on ultra-competitive schools, whether that is truly the best fit for them or not. The disconnect between what students are conditioned to want, and the advice counselors give, can make it even more difficult to effectively tackle the challenges students face, such as competitiveness and stress.
“Instead of actually choosing to engage with the issue at the level [of] where the stress is coming from, which is the amount of work teachers give the students and the general competitive culture, it’s more like [they’re] trying to treat a symptom of the problem,” said Ishan Kinikar, a rising senior.
Kinikar added that Advisory, a program that replaced Homeroom for the past two years, exemplifies some of the shortcomings of this approach. During Advisory meetings, students would meet in small groups with staff members to discuss issues within the Lexington community such as identity or mental health; the counseling office explicitly emphasized this program, which was first piloted in the fall of 2020, as a key tool in their approach to supporting students’ mental health during the pandemic. However, Advisory triggered student backlash for not being an effective or well-managed treatment of critically important topics. As a result, students often wouldn’t pay attention during Advisory meetings, would refrain from turning on their cameras for remote and hybrid sessions during the program’s first year, and would criticize the program with their peers. Advisory was also stymied throughout the 2021-22 school year by pandemic-related scheduling challenges, as previously reported, but resumed this spring with a focus on “building familiarity with one another” rather than discussing specific topics, according to an April update from Principal Stephens.
Kinikar believes Advisory created only superficial change. “The way that they’ve treated [student stress] has been very tokenistic,” he summarized.
Still, some students emphasized that counselors were crucial to navigating the college application process. Jinhee Heo, a 2020 graduate of LHS who is now a rising sophomore at Northwestern University after taking a gap year, noted that the counselors demystified the process for her as a first-generation college student.
“Being first generation, it was intimidating to be around people whose parents already went to college and knew a lot about the application process… School counselors are really helpful no matter what other people may say. I think they’re a great resource,” Heo said. LexObserver reached out to the counseling office for comment but did not receive a response by press time.
School Committee members echoed Heo’s sentiments, praising staff across the entire school system. “I’m just absolutely grateful to all of the wonderful teachers,” Lenihan said. Years ago, her child was struggling with reading and, before she had raised any concern with her child’s teacher, the teacher reached out to her, asking if she would be okay with her daughter meeting with a reading specialist.
“I know that in other communities that never would have happened,” Lenihan said, noting that Lexington elementary schools have long maintained a relatively high reading specialist-to-student ratio compared to other school districts.
Sawhney said she is “very happy with the teachers and both [of] my kids have felt supported” throughout their time in Lexington Public Schools. Students leave with a “very, very good education.”
Student stress is hardly limited to Lexington. Two new books, Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream and How to Navigate Life: The New Science of Finding Your Way in School, Career and Beyond, are among the latest to examine the causes and effects of these stresses on high schoolers across the country through different lenses.
Natasha Warikoo, author of Race at the Top and a sociology professor at Tufts, studied an anonymized East Coast suburb over three years that she named Woodcrest. Like Lexington, its population is about a third Asian American; like Lexington, its median household income is within the top 20% nationwide; like Lexington, this community recently eliminated most homework at the elementary school level. Whether Woodcrest is actually Lexington or not, Warikoo argues that in a community with these characteristics that experiences an influx of Asian Americans, some white parents respond with a “push for policies to reduce academic competition.” With her argument, Warikoo encourages individuals to interrogate the impulses that lead to calls for reducing “student stress.”
Warikoo’s findings warrant further exploration in the community. But individuals in Lexington interviewed for this story, including Asian American students and School Committee members, generally agreed about the need to reduce student stress within the community. On that front, Belle Liang and Tim Klein, the authors of How to Navigate Life, offer hope in a model they refer to as “purpose-based.” They encourage parents and students to focus not solely on performance nor solely on following passion but a third path that combines both of those goals with a sense of purpose and helping others. A shift to this kind of mindset might benefit everyone.
Lexington is only at the beginning of the process to transform its culture. But despite its long-standing challenges with rife student stress, the town is far from where it was five years ago. As previously reported, suicide ideation has declined in middle and high school students, decreasing among middle schoolers from 15.6% in 2019 to 13.6% in 2021, and in high school, from 16.6% in 2019 to 13.2% in 2021, according to biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) results.
Still, there’s substantial progress to be made. In 2021, 47.1% of LHS students responded that they typically manage their stress by ignoring it – up from 39.6% in 2019. And in 2021, 76.4% of students agreed or strongly agreed that the atmosphere in the town of Lexington encourages students to compete academically with each other – while even more, 78.2%, said the same of Lexington High School.
“We need to get a lot better at prioritizing the other gifts and skills that kids have. And I think system-wide, we can do that by changing the way that we grade, changing some policy issues,” Hackett said. “We’re not there yet. We still have a lot of work to do, but we’re on the right track.”
Anika Basu, Sree Dharmaraj and Anuka Manghwani are LexObserver’s 2022 summer interns and rising seniors at Lexington High School.