I took four AP classes my senior year, was Sports Editor of the student newspaper and captain of the track team (humble brags). I was surrounded by students in a high achieving school that often times had even more impressive accomplishments. I knew I was in a high intensity environment, I knew I was stressed, but I never realized how that was impacting students around me. Now 10(ish) years after I graduated high school, I’m realizing students today are under even more pressure.
By nearly any measure, Andrew is a quintessential example of a contemporary high achieving student.
An 11th grader at Fairview High School, Andrew, who asked to be identified only by his first name, is part of the school’s rigorous International Baccalaureate program. He’s involved in extracurriculars and already has taken two years of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) classes.
Even with these credentials, Andrew feels a palpable stress as he gets closer to graduation and begins thinking about education after high school.
“There’s a lot of pressure around the school to get into a university that has the right name,” Andrew says. “Most understand that we shouldn’t focus on the name, but there’s still that pressure to go to the most prestigious university possible. Often times that can be very deteriorating for not only personal and mental health, but the culture and learning environment.”
Andrew is just one of many students feeling similar pressures state and nationwide. At high achieving districts like those around Boulder and the suburbs north of Denver, the pressures can become even greater.
Though Colorado ranks 38th of 49 reporting states in high school graduation percentage, the greater Boulder area and North Denver suburbs stand out among not just the state, but the nation. Colorado graduated 77.3 percent of its high school students for the 2015 school year, behind the 82.3 percent national graduation rate. In contrast, following the 2014-2015 school year, the Boulder Valley School district boasted a 92.3 percent graduation rate. As of 2013, the latest year data is available from the Colorado Department of Higher Education, 68.7 percent of Boulder Valley School District high school graduates were attending some type of college, compared to the Colorado state average of 55.3.
The St. Vrain Valley School District, which serves areas north and east of Boulder including Longmont, Erie and Lyons, isn’t far off. It also outpaced the state average with a 81.8 percent graduation rate in 2015. The district saw 58.1 percent of high school graduates attend college after 12th grade as of 2013.
Colorado high school graduates were also above average in persistence rate, or the percentage of students who remain in a post-secondary educational institution after their first year. These students ranked at 87 percent for four-year schools and 62 percent for two-year colleges, both above the national average.
This culture of academic success extends beyond high school and college students. Nearly 60 percent of Boulder-area residents age 25 or older have a Bachelor’s Degree or higher, compared to 34 percent nationwide. Over 25 percent of residents have a graduate or professional degree, compared to 7.6 percent of the rest of the U.S. population.
I was stressed enough to attend a high achieving school in a rather low achieving area. As someone new to the area, I can’t imagine existing where everyone around, at least seems, to be just as intelligent, if not smarter.
It’s clear there are many factors contributing to the academic success of the students of the area. Anchored by the state university system’s flagship institution, the University of Colorado-Boulder, the city and immediate areas are bolstered by a high achieving core of residents, a higher-than-average tax base and a permeating academic culture. Teachers in the area are among the better paid in the state, and the Boulder Valley School district’s’ average teacher’s salary of $71,575 tops all of Colorado’s 185 school districts.
Colorado, and Denver and its suburbs in particular, have also seen explosive growth. According to the U.S. census bureau, the state saw more than 100,000 new residents relocate here from July 2014 to July 2015, second to only North Dakota in percentage growth during that same time. Another report from the census bureau shows that Colorado has the second-highest percentage of any state with residents holding bachelor’s degrees at 38.3 percent of the population. In 2015, Forbes also ranked Colorado No. 1 in labor supply and No. 4 for economic climate. On March 31 of this year, the New York Times used Denver as its primary example in a story about cities with strengthening economies. The article also mentions the Denver metropolitan area’s 2.7 percent unemployment rate – the lowest of any area in the country with at least one million people.
Bill Huston, co-founder of Boulder-based tutoring organization Mindfish, says the increase in population and desire to live in the area, combined with comparatively slow growth in the number of spots available for students to attend more prestigious schools and universities like CU-Boulder, naturally ratchets the academic intensity.
“This area has gotten more competitive since I’ve done this work,” says Huston, who moved to Boulder and began his tutoring business in 2001. “Part of that is the boom that’s happening in Colorado. The business and economic environment is pretty vibrant right now. Maybe part of it is people coming from the east and west settling in Denver, but I think (the area) sees itself as a more competitive area in general, and that plays out in the schools.”
Broomfield High School (94 percent graduation rate) has seen success like many other schools in the area. Principal Ginger Ramsey says her school and student body has developed an expectation for academic success, both in high school and beyond and that hasn’t changed much in her 16 years at the helm at Broomfield.
“I would say that our community is very highly educated, with a college-bound focus and family values that college and post-secondary education, no matter how that looks like, be it vocational schools, four year schools, the military or whatever else, is very important.”
Still, for many students in the area, it’s not so much about graduating high school or even going to a four-year college, but setting them up for the best collegiate experience possible – and beating their classmates to those top spots
Pressures in the Area and Beyond
Representatives from both school districts says they’re proud of their accomplishments. An unfortunate downside can be the negatives of competition- and increased stress.
At Fairview High School (97 percent graduation rate in 2015), students are feeling stress not only in the class room but in their extracurricular activity choices. Andrew says most students are involved in some extra activity, but pressures for a better resume can influence the decision.
“I think naturally people are attracted to things they feel enjoyable, but then when they look at how colleges might view them, we might gravitate towards clubs with a good name or that would look good on a resume.” Andrew says. “In some sense, this can foster a sense of trying to do activities to impress a college.”
Area school board members are also concerned with the increasing levels of competition among high achieving students in an area seemingly inundated with them.
“It absolutely adds an extra pressure,” Belval says. “There was a feeling that there was a lot of unhealthy competition. Some kids wouldn’t take classes they wanted to, like art classes, because they weren’t weighted heavily enough. I think all of our high schools are really concerned about that. It’s a challenge.”
“I wish we had more counseling staff and more time in our day and more resources to address things like this.”
This extends beyond the greater Boulder area and just academic success. Parker, Colorado resident Debbie DeLoney saw pressures from other’s success in career, or the impressions of success, impacting her son. While living in the south Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch, her older son graduated high school and went on to attend college in Wisconsin for one year on a lacrosse scholarship before leaving to return to Colorado. Several years later he’s without a college degree and has struggled landing a reliable job.
DeLoney believes social media is helping to compound these struggles.
“They see all their friends living their life, and for kids who really don’t know what to do it, it’s a struggle,” DeLoney says. “They don’t see the bad. People only want to put out the good and how life is wonderful and they landed the dream job. But it’s not always that way for most kids.”
That’s a safe assessment for social media users way older than “kids.” After graduation is an inundation of updates on friends with the best careers, the best new houses, the best new spouses, the best new kids, the best new retirement communities (I haven’t seen that yet, but you get the point). I was fortunate enough to go to school in the halcyon days before high schoolers were permitted to use facebook, so the only way to know if someone got into their top school was whether or not they wore that school’s colors on a t-shirt to class the next Monday.
DeLoney’s daughter, currently a sophomore at Ponderosa High School (97 percent graduation rate) in Parker, is in the midst of similar academic pressures inherent in high achieving schools. Many of her classmates are already prepping for the SAT and ACT. A talented English student taking an Advanced Placement-level class, her marks in geometry have slipped as she’s tried to balance her schooling in pursuit of post secondary education.
“There’s a lot of pressure for people to get out,” DeLoney says. “I couldn’t have done it. When you’re in high school these expectations are too much. You’re not going to save the world.”
On top of that, current high school students are in the midst of a major education overhaul through the federal government’s Common Core standards reform.
“We’re hopefully building those kids ready for college . That’s our entire focus,” says Colorado Department of Education Assistant Director of Communications Jeremy Meyer. “We’re trying to prepare kids for college or careers… we’ve changed our standards higher, so when they graduate from high school they’ll be ready.“
Common Core has lead to a new set of learning requirements for both students and the educators who instruct them, along with increased testing and accountability. Further complicating things is the inherent burden of a comprehensive, fundamental change to education structures. Several years into the program, academic leaders, teachers and students are still adjusting to the changes.
Compounding these pressures in an area so focused on academic achievement are worries that some students could miss out on options better suited for them, such as career and technical opportunities.
“I think there’s definitely a stigma that getting into an Ivy league or prestigious university is a definition of success and you can’t make success through other professions or other pursuits or other schools, and going to somewhere else won’t lead to as much success,” Andrew says.
“There’s a stereotype that it’s not that bright or great a student, and I find that not to be true. I find all kinds of kids are drawn to these classes,” Belval says. “I hope we encourage kids to pursue the things they love, regardless.”
Despite this increasing emphasis on college-level placement, the area school districts are working to not just preserve existing opportunities for career and vocational education but expanding them.
Boulder offers Career and Technical Education training at the Arapahoe campus, including programs in welding, criminal justice and cosmetology.
“All of our high schools drive for a really personal touch. It’s not glamorous, but it’s just the nuts and bolts of having really good teachers that care about kids and having a variety of offerings that keeps kids engaged, and I think we do it well,” Belval says. “If we do it well, and have a few alternatives as well, you manage to get the needs of most of your kids.”
Belval’s district has a board of advisors who works with the school board on issues pertaining to the career and technical programs and works with statewide initiatives to continue encouraging education in those fields.
The St. Vrain Valley School District has invested in similar offerings.
“The pathway that students have are numerous because we realize students don’t want to always have the regular English, math and science, but specialization,” says St. Vrain Valley School Board District D representative John Ahrens.
His district currently offers welding, agriculture and automotive training, among other fields, to area students. The district also is looking to get a bond passed when it goes to ballot in the November elections. If passed, as Ahrens and the boards expects, the funds will go to a new K-8 school in Erie, north of the existing high school, which in turn will allow for easier access for open enrollment to these other programs.
“Our kids are getting so many opportunities, I wish I could go back and get what they’re having,” Ahrens says
Boulder Welding company owner Andrew Abegg is a sterling example of technical education success.
Abegg grew up near Gary, Indiana in nearby Hobart, a blue collar industrial town whose local high school mascot is personified by a brick layer. As a 15-year-old freshman at Hobart High, Abegg was already taking advanced welding classes and creating bike parts for his friends. By his junior and senior year he was taking vocational classes at Ivy Tech Community College Northwest in Valparaiso, Indiana, had earned multiple welding certifications and was able to graduate high school early.
“Having those certifications (that early) was like graduating college in a field that you really enjoy – while still in high school,” Abegg says.
Abegg was one of many skilled workers finding plenty of work. He says many people, even some with families, in the field were working between 80 and 100 hours a week and sleeping only four hours a night. The pay was excellent, but Abegg didn’t want to live that lifestyle. He was attracted to an opportunity to relocate to Colorado to work for Eldorado Climbing Walls for a while before starting his own company in August 2015.
Now there are still plenty of high paying jobs for skilled welders and frequently not enough people to fill the demand, Abegg says.He’s long encouraged other people to consider technical education training and seen positive results.
“Five or six of my good friends, I didn’t pressure them into dropping out of college, but it
stimulated a conversation,” Abegg says. “Some of them aren’t doing what they majored in, like engineering, and some of them actually went into apprenticeship like Heating and AC”
One of the best things, Abegg says, about the welding technical programs was instead of paying money to a college or university, he was being paid to learn and work on the job at a young age. He equated his vocational school education in high school to earning a bachelor’s and his apprenticeship shortly after that equipped him like a masters degree – all without paying a dime. Often times these jobs are paying way more than students, like myself, who worked to pay for a four-year journalism degree from a major university.
Still, the majority of students in the immediate area are engrossed in upper level academically oriented classes designed for higher education. Aware of the stresses, the schools and school districts have taken tangible (and awesome) steps to help stressed students and mitigate the unhealthy competitive aspects.
Many schools in the area offer Freshmen Advisory Classes to help students adjust to high school and deal with the pressures of the next four years.
At Fairview, as with other schools nearby, there are no valedictorians, salutatorians or class ranks based off solely of GPAs. Though there are still recognitions for students at graduation with outstanding academic accomplishments, like magna cum laude and summa cum laude, removing the intensity spurned by trying to achieve a negligible grade point average over second place in order to be top in the class was one way to help the situation.
Fairview also has several ways to help students before graduation. The school doesn’t have pluses or minus in its grading, so students can only receive an “A”, “B”, “C” and so on.
“Especially for me, I feel like not having the potential for an A+ in the class helps me lose a little of my perfectionism,” Andrew says.
The school has also embraced more minor opportunities to de-stress. A school group called Sources of Strength puts on a Wellness Day before finals, bringing puppies to campus and offering free hot chocolate to students.
Andrew says steps like these have already made improvements at the school and there is a noticeable difference in the culture since his brother graduated Fairview in 2014.
“The student body realizes the stress is real and it can be a problem, so we’re preventing it from being a real problem,” Andrew says. “There are initiatives to reduce the competitiveness and there are aspects changing already with the class of 2017.”
A school district with graduation rates near 100 percent, full of students fighting to be the best would be a dream for most in education. Combine that with a community as educationally focused as the greater Boulder area and most are grateful for the plentiful opportunities to excel in their academic progress. An unfortunate side effect of a competitive area, combined with a nearly unprecedented influx of talented individuals coming to the area, has created some unwanted, if not unsurprising, consequences.
Now school officials, teachers and students are learning to adjust to these potential pressures and working hard to set up all students in the best possible situation in school and afterwards, regardless of where it is. Many feel this increased emphasis on an area of concern will help better equip students and strengthen the success of a high achieving area.
“I feel that once students (leave high school), we’ll realize it’s more what you make about the experience than the place you end up going to.” Andrew says. “I think some of the most successful students are those who don’t care as much about the distinction of an Ivy League but are pursuing their best interests because they simply want to get better at what they’re doing.”
Andrew offered a more nuanced observation that what I would have considered at his age (or at my current age) and he is clearly wise beyond his years. There’s no doubt high achieving students are feeling more pressure than they did 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago and so on. It’s also becoming apparent, particularly in an academic area as intense as this one, the school officials and students are figuring out appropriate ways to balance these pressures.