Princeton High School is looking to make significant changes to decrease student stress, increase deeper and more engaged learning, and create a culture where the definition of success revolves around joy and purpose. On Wednesday, April 19, Princeton High School parents, teachers, and administrators gathered to review the results of a survey PHS students took this fall and also to brainstorm responses to what the students shared through the survey. Designed by researchers at Stanford University, the Challenge Success survey measured students' experience with 12 different topics, among them: stress, academic engagement, perceptions of homework, extracurricular activities, parental expectations, sleep, academic integrity, and overall health and wellbeing.
The takeaway? Like students nationally, PHS students are experiencing high levels of stress and lower levels of joyful engagement with learning. More than 80% expressed feeling often or always stressed by their schoolwork. Only 15% indicated they truly enjoy the learning during their school day. Other key takeaways from the survey include students spending an average of three to three and half hours a night on homework and only logging six to six and half hours a night of sleep.
“Our students are working incredibly hard,” noted PHS Principal, Gary Snyder. “But many of them are caught up in going through the motions; they are 'doing school.' They may find their work interesting, but they are not always motivated by a joy of learning for the sake of learning.” Mr. Snyder contrasts this with the nearly 75% of students who report participating in afterschool, extra-curricular activities primarily because of personal enjoyment – not resume building. “One of our challenges,” Mr. Snyder stated, “is to get the passion and motivation for mastery our students experience with their afterschool activities into the regular school day.”
At the April 19 event, Mr. Snyder spoke about the need for innovative, holistic change at the high school. He emphasized that change must not be “tinkering around the edges,” but rather it needs to be significant, getting to the core of the high school experience, including changes to curriculum, assessments, and even the use of physical space at PHS. Already, Mr. Snyder, along with members of the PHS administration, faculty, and a few parents have been working to identify changes that will deepen studentsí desire for knowledge and joy for learning while creating a culture of mental and physical wellness. As a committee, they are exploring adjustments in the school schedule as well as shifts in instruction, which could include a later start time, fewer but longer class periods each day, additional breaks in the day for students,
transitioning to a trimester schedule for some classes, and the infusion of more problem-based learning, which allows for greater student choice and more interdisciplinary experiences.
A serious challenge facing the District and the entire community is the need to decrease student stress. The data from the Challenge Success survey indicated that 47% of students miss one or more days of school each month because of a stress-related or emotional problem. This number is deeply troubling, and one that one district is committed to addressing with the support of parents, teachers, administrators, and the students themselves.
Mr. Snyder told parents that there is an urgent need to make lasting and impactful changes at the high school that will be in the best of students. “This is important and we need to do it well and we need to do it soon,” said Mr. Snyder. He added, “But we need to be careful not to do it such a way that we rush in and stumble into things. We need to get it right.”
“Academic stress and struggles with depression are at an all-time high nationally for both high school and college students,” noted Princeton Public School Superintendent, Stephen Cochrane. “The goal we all share is to increase wellness while deepening learning.” As Superintendent Cochrane sees it, the two objectives are interwoven – not mutually exclusive. “Students do not learn well when they are under stress. None of us do. Students learn best when they connect personally with the material they are studying, when they are appropriately challenged to apply their learning, and when they have time to reflect on what they have learned.”
Students also learn best when they know they are cared about. One of the highpoints of the survey was the percentage of students who felt their teachers cared about them and who could identify at least one adult in the school to whom they would go if they had a problem.
Mr. Snyder shared that teachers have already begun having conversations with students in their classes about the data that was gathered from the survey. For instance, based on student responses to the amount of time they spend each day on homework, some teachers have begun asking students to complete some homework assignments in class so that the teacher can see how long the assignment truly takes to complete. With this knowledge, teachers are already adjusting and improving assignments.
“We are eager to make change, but also fearful to make change,” Mr. Snyder shared with parents at Wednesday's gathering. “We are a pretty successful high school by common measures. So even though we might see things we need to change, we worry: what if our community isn't happy with the changes? What if our kids don't do as well by the standard measures of success?”
PHS parent Zoe Brookes called on the whole school community to recognize that not everyone will agree on what changes should be made, but she said that she hoped all parents could support the district in taking decisive action. She noted the particular value of the data from the survey because it comes directly from the students. She urged the district to clearly define success for students and then courageously move forward with evidence-driven changes that align with that definition.
Superintendent Cochrane stated, “To make the changes that are needed to ensure our students thrive in school and in life, Princeton High School will need the active support of parents, students, teachers, and the broader community. We will need to work together to build a culture where students can have space to breathe, to try new things, to fail, to succeed, and to have definition of success that revolves around joy and purpose.”
The gathering on April 19th was an important step in beginning the collaborative conversations about changes that could be made at Princeton High School to deepen learning for students while enhancing wellness. The District intends to hold additional meetings with parents and teachers of both middle school and elementary school students to gain further feedback.
“The entire community needs to understand whatís at stake here and be invested in the outcome” Superintendent Cochrane asserted. “Our goal is to be a leader in creating school environments that will help students develop meaningful relationships, foster the highest levels of learning, and internalize a healthy definition of success. Changes that support that goal need to happen not just at the high school but throughout the District.”
The District will continue its analysis of the Challenge Success survey and continue to work with Stanford University on the implementation of researched-based changes that can be made at Princeton High School to positively reshape student experiences. PHS plans to pilot changes throughout the 2017-2018 school year and make significant, systematic changes for the start of the 2018-2019 school year. A plan for proposed changes will be presented in June. In the meantime, we invite parents to review the results of the survey, which can be found below and to submit thoughts and suggestions online. We also invite parents and members of the community to review the resources on the Challenge Success website as one way of deepening our collective understanding of the problems and potential schools are facing across the nation.
PHS Challenge Success Survey 2016-2017.docx