To the editor:
Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of conversations about “success.” Specifically, what makes a school district successful and what makes any particular student a declared “success.” The start of a school year is a good time to think about what we want for our Bainbridge Island kids, to think about how we define success as a community, to consider how we measure it in our schools, and how we acknowledge it in our homes.
By most metrics, Bainbridge schools are extremely successful. We graduate an incredibly high percentage of our students, and an extraordinarily high number of those graduates go on to four-year colleges and highly ranked universities. When we go through the dubious, and embarrassing exercise of listing our top GPA students in the Bainbridge Review, it seems like it would be easier just to list the few who are not A students. Our standardized scores are among the highest in the state of Washington. So, there you go — we are clearly succeeding, right?
Some would say “no,” and question why we don’t have more National Merit Scholars or ponder why we didn’t send even more students to the Ivy League. Some parents feel let down when Bainbridge doesn’t beat Bellevue or Mercer Island’s test scores.
Me? I say these are limited measures at best, and in fact meaningless metrics if you are talking about a deeper meaning of success. Test scores, GPAs, and class acceptance rates are easy to measure and easily quantifiable, however, what they most closely align with are socio-economic demographics. For better or worse, we end up applauding who we are — a primarily affluent, predominately white, highly educated, and high achieving community. Not surprisingly, our kids reflect our demographic. As parents, we are highly engaged and invested in our children’s success — probably more so than our parents were, and we rightly feel more anxiety about what our children’s future holds.
The fact that we desire their success and worry about their future comes from a place of concern and love. We want for them what we have, but they have lost some of what we had — freedom from a stressed-out high school experience. Having raised three kids on our island, I feel that many of our teens are more anxious, more depressed and more pressured than we were at their age. So I ask, would we be a stronger community, would we be better parents, would our schools be “more successful” if we had more 4.0 students with even higher test scores?
Like most of us, I celebrate the achievements of our excellent and hardworking students, some of them have even lived in my house. But I question the premise that all kids need to be uber students, sports standouts, and belong to various clubs in order to be declared a success. What about the totally average kid who is decent and kind? What about the quirky and creative but otherwise unremarkable kid? Do we remember to notice their gifts, or are we so focused on nurturing the precocious student that we overlook the funny lovable goofball, the artistic soul, the vague daydreamer who finds her stride later in life?
If you are a high academic achiever, BHS can give you many opportunities to excel and challenge yourself. Please do not mistake me; I think it is terrific. But, what about those students who do not reach the high academic achievement standard? What message are we sending to those kids about their value? If you are a student who does not fit the typical mold — meaning tests well, can learn when sitting in a chair, reads and computes well — all the hallmarks of a “good student,” then Bainbridge can be a hard place to be a high school student.
Along with offering 17 AP and honors classes, we also need to actively support the education of those kids who do not plan to college right after BHS. Believe it or not, some Bainbridge kids go on to trade school or community college, some join the military, attend police or fire academies, and some even go right to work. There are many paths through life and many paths to success, and we do ourselves, and our kids a huge disservice if we continue to define “success” for them so narrowly.
As they say, the child teaches the parent — this has certainly been true for me. My youngest has made me stop and consider all my previous assumptions about educational success and without him in my life I would have remained blissfully unaware of the plight of the other 10 to 15 percent of our Island kids. I am forever grateful to my son for without his perspective I would not have peeked outside the box of my own narrow experience. I am also exceedingly thankful for his counselor, teachers and principal at BHS who are sincerely working toward supporting all our students, not just the college bound.
Really, is the goal of an education to get into that one perfect university so that you can secure a spot in the one selective program, so you can then go to the very best grad school and get one of the very scarce good jobs? Really? I refuse to believe that life and education is a zero-sum game. Can we refrain from shoveling all this anxiety onto our BHS kids, implying that their lives hang in the balance of their junior year and that what happens to them at 16 will determine their whole future? Luckily, for most of us it was not true, and for most of them, it is also not true. The goal of education is not to prepare you for a better job. The goal of education is to prepare you to live a better life.
So here is my definition of academic success: All students leave Bainbridge Island with their curiosity intact so they will always find joy in learning something new. Our students will be brave enough to pursue their passions and explore new opportunities without fear of failing; that as parents we will have successfully imparted the ideal that the only true form of failure lies in not trying. Our “most successful” Island grown students will challenge assumptions — most importantly their own. They will learn to think critically and express their opinions eloquently and respectfully. Our students will know how to find and verify facts; interpret the current moment with historical perspective. All successful students will be scientifically literate.
Most important, they will make deep thinking a habit and not shy away from difficult ideas.
Our successful schools will encourage all students to be flexible, creative thinkers, as we have no idea what the future holds for them. Our successful schools will encourage our students to take intellectual risks, become resilient and reliable.
Our very highest achievers will remember that in the wider world there will always be someone better at, smarter than, or faster than you. Do not let this discourage you, instead let it free you from any obsession with perfection — just do your very best and remember that there is someone who could use your help or a kind word. For those who struggled through school and hated much of it, hold your head up and remember that someone “successful” just like you, is going to build those houses, fix those cars, put out those fires, paint those paintings, write those songs, and save those lives. Trust me, if my house is on fire, or my car will not start I do not give a crap what you got on your PSAT, nor does anyone else.
And as a community, it would behoove us all to remember that much of what we call “success” in life comes down to hard work, desire and getting along with others.