New Jersey School District Eases Pressure on Students, Baring an Ethnic Divide

Kyle Spencer, New York Times, December 25, 2015

This fall, David Aderhold, the superintendent of a high-achieving school district near Princeton, N.J., sent parents an alarming 16-page letter.

The school district, he said, was facing a crisis. Its students were overburdened and stressed out, juggling too much work and too many demands.

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With his letter, Dr. Aderhold inserted West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District into a national discussion about the intense focus on achievement at elite schools, and whether it has gone too far.

At follow-up meetings, he urged parents to join him in advocating a holistic, “whole child” approach to schooling that respects “social-emotional development” and “deep and meaningful learning” over academics alone. The alternative, he suggested, was to face the prospect of becoming another Palo Alto, Calif., where outsize stress on teenage students is believed to have contributed to two clusters of suicides in the last six years.

But instead of bringing families together, Dr. Aderhold’s letter revealed a fissure in the district, which has 9,700 students, and one that broke down roughly along racial lines. On one side are white parents like Catherine Foley, a former president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at her daughter’s middle school, who has come to see the district’s increasingly pressured atmosphere as antithetical to learning.

“My son was in fourth grade and told me, ‘I’m not going to amount to anything because I have nothing to put on my résumé,’ ” Ms. Foley said.

On the other side are parents like Mike Jia, one of the thousands of Asian-American professionals who have moved to the district in the past decade, who said Dr. Aderhold’s reforms would amount to a “dumbing down” of his children’s education.

“What is happening here reflects a national anti-intellectual trend that will not prepare our children for the future,” Mr. Jia said.

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The district has become increasingly popular with immigrant families from China, India and Korea. This year, 65 percent of its students are Asian-American, compared with 44 percent in 2007. Many of them are the first in their families born in the United States.

They have had a growing influence on the district. Asian-American parents are enthusiastic supporters of the competitive instrumental music program. They have been huge supporters of the district’s advanced mathematics program, which once began in the fourth grade but will now start in the sixth. The change to the program, in which 90 percent of the participating students are Asian-American, is one of Dr. Aderhold’s reforms.

Asian-American students have been avid participants in a state program that permits them to take summer classes off campus for high school credit, allowing them to maximize the number of honors and Advanced Placement classes they can take, another practice that Dr. Aderhold is limiting this school year.

With many Asian-American children attending supplemental instructional programs, there is a perception among some white families that the elementary school curriculum is being sped up to accommodate them.

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At a packed meeting of the school district’s Board of Education held shortly before the winter break, a middle school cafeteria was filled with parents, with Asian-Americans sitting on one side and white families on the other. Some parents and students described rampant cheating, grade fixation and days so stressful that some students could not wait for them to end. But other parents, primarily Asian-American ones, described a different picture, one in which their values were being ignored.

Helen Yin, the mother of an eighth grader and a kindergartner, told the crowd that Dr. Aderhold was attempting to hold her and her children back. At one point, a visibly upset Ms. Yin, who moved from Chengdu, China, to pursue a master’s degree in chemistry, shouted to the room filled with parents, “Who can I trust?”

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