‘CPS Selective Enrollment Machine’ creates anxious, perfectionist students


Countless times I have heard my friends talk about how it feels wrong on the days that they do not have work to do for school. They cannot go to sleep because they feel like they should be doing something. Recently, I went home and was so overwhelmed by exhaustion that I went to bed. As I lay in bed, I could not go to sleep because of the revolving thoughts in my head.

You are not going to have enough time for homework. You still haven’t started on that project. When are you going to schedule that meeting for club? Did everyone pay for those sweaters that you got for club? Are you being a good leader? Is everything on track? People depend on you now.

I know I cannot be the only one that thinks like this as he/she lays down to sleep.

In a school of approximately 4,200 students, it is easy to feel lost in the crowd. You can feel like a number in a sea of thousands especially when you are labeled as one as soon as you enter the public school system. Student ID number, anyone?

Lane is a selective enrollment high school, and a prospective student is tested even before he/she is an official Lane student which sets high standards even before schoolwork begins. A prime example of this is our new curriculum track, “CORE with AP Capstone,” which has freshmen taking AP Human Geography and in their senior year the option of taking seven AP classes.

But Lane’s administration hopefully has good intentions and only means to provide us with the most challenging courses that students can take on. After all, Lane is a college prepatory school. But many nights, the coursework causes students to end nights in tears or even no sleep at all–causing students that once enjoyed school, to bitterly hate it.

Hollya Israil, Div. 754, is a high achieving student by many standards. She has a high GPA, multiple AP classes, and is involved in many clubs.

“This, by far, is the most stressful year for me. I get daily homework from almost every class,” Israil said. “I have at least one quiz/test a day sometimes it goes up to three-four a day so I’m being evaluated frequently. I drink a lot of coffee and sometimes it’s hard to even get through a day without caffeine, and I would say my sleeping schedule is very unhealthy. I’ve had many all nighters and have learned to function on no sleep.”

Israil is only one example of many. I conducted a survey on The Warrior’s Facebook, asking students to answer my survey if they felt stressed. I received over 100 answers.

Jack Cox, Lane’s social worker of 24 years, said that the reported levels of anxiety and stress has had a spike over the past five years.

“More and more anxiety,” Cox said. “I’ve had many many kids being formally diagnosed out in the community by psychologists. They’re being diagnosed with generalized anxiety or social anxiety. It’s very noticeable.”

Generalized anxiety, defined by the National Institute of Mental Health, is when a person finds themselves extremely worried about various things whether it be family, money, or the future, even when there is little or no reason to worry about them. People with generalized anxiety are anxious about surviving the day, and they always think that things will go badly and stop them from doing everyday tasks.

Ms. Andros, a guidance counselor, said that during the week she sees approximately 70 students per week, and there are about two to three cases about anxiety and depression.

“Anxiety and depression are caused by a gamut of subjects,” Andros said. “It could be loss. This includes community loss and pet loss. Anxiety could be caused by a new stepfather/mother, a new boyfriend or girlfriend of the parent, finding structure in their life or family, arguments, loss of relationships, trying to be perfect, when coming to Lane is not what they expected, and troubles with their self-esteem.”

Dr. Jacqueline Gilson, Lane’s psychologist for six years, said that many do not understand the importance of mental health either because they cannot see it like physical illnesses or they were taught from their parents that if you show no physical symptoms then you are fine.

Mental health days is a new phenomenon occurring among students. It is described as a day when students are absent from school because their mental health is suffering. In the survey given by The Warrior Facebook page, the sample group was students that felt stressed out by school and was comprised of 34 freshmen, 25 sophomores, 19 juniors, and 22 seniors. 41 percent said, “Yes, I have taken a “mental health day.”

Gretchen Faliszek, Div. 979, is one of the freshmen taking the CORE AP Capstone track.

“[I took a mental health day because] I was feeling very stressed out and began having panic attacks about a AP Human Geography exam on the bus to school, and I texted my mom and she said to come back home,” Faliszek said.

Administration is not as strict on mental health days as you would think. Everyone understands that sometimes people need a break.

“I have mixed feelings. The concept is great and I know that stress is skyrocketing,” Mrs. Anderson, Lane’s principal, said. “But on the other hand, it is difficult when the students come back the next day. They have to make up work and work with the teacher to catch up with the rest of the class.”

Schools know about the stress that they impose upon their students. But few schools have apparent solutions that students can go through that if they do feel this stress. A part of this is because stress, anxiety and a variety of mental illnesses are only recently being brought to light. I give credit to Lane as they are attempting to fix these problems. Mrs. Anderson is creating new councils and restructuring old ones like Student Council. It is hard to establish rules that will encompass everyone’s needs when everyone’s problems are unique.

It is also difficult because there is no exact cause found for mental illnesses like anxiety disorders or depression, many have their own hypotheses.

“There’s some controversy these days that a lot of young people are being programmed at an early age to… I don’t want to say pampered… But they’re not allowed to fail,” Cox said. “We live in a society where everyone is treated equally — which is fine — but the kids don’t develop a tolerance. They’re very intolerant of failure. When they feel like they’re failing or not meeting expectations, that’s when the anxiety sets in.”

  I believe that standardized testing has a huge part to be played in anxiety caused by school. Teachers are pressured by the state to raise their test scores to a certain range or else they are deemed as failing as a teacher. In turn, the teacher pressures the student. The student is penalized also because many standardized tests determine their future such as the selective enrollment high school exam, the ACT, or the SAT.

This knowledge weighs heavy in many students’ minds as they prepare or take the ACT for college.

Anxiety caused from knowing that filling in bubbles incorrectly could ruin your chances into getting into a dream school which then prevents one from getting that dream job, which can end up with not the life that you ultimately wanted for yourself… all because of some graphite rubbed into the wrong circle on a sheet of paper. It is all in your hands.

In addition, after the test students find it hard not to compare themselves to others when social media allows our peers to share their succeeding scores in front of the whole world. It is hard not to compare your score to theirs when as you scroll through your newsfeed you see the same stories over and over.

“As a selective enrollment school, there is a lot of pressure. Many students have a drive to be the best but they can’t always be the best,” Andros said.

The theme of false perfection was a resounding answer as I asked mental health professionals at Lane why they thought anxiety was a problem for students.

Dr. Gilson agrees that perfection is one of the major triggers of anxiety.

“And for many kids too, this is the first time they’ve been academically challenged. So their grades do not reflect perfection but they feel like they have to be perfect. But I’ll remind you that perfection is a distortion,” Gilson said. “Perfection is not real and it’s not something human beings should aspire to because it’s not a human purpose. Humans are not supposed to be perfect. But when you try to be perfect when you’re imperfect that leads to a lot of problems.”

Gilson believes that other than aspiring for perfection, anxiety for students comes from commuting great distances, family responsibilities, extracurriculars, jobs, and the amount of sleep the student receives.

“If I could wish one thing for every student at Lane, it is that they get eight hours of sleep a night, because if everyone got eight hours of sleep a night, we would see a lot less anxious and depressed symptomology here in this building,” Gilson said.  “I know it. I know it. Everyone would feel refreshed and like they have enough gas in their tank to do what they need to do and to manage pitfalls and challenges.”

Gilson is also concerned by what she calls, “the CPS selective enrollment machine.”

“Students in the the seventh and eighth grade sought this distorted ideal of perfection. ‘I have to be perfect. Perfect grades, perfect scores.. perfect, perfect.’ And then they get here, and they can’t be perfect because the curriculum is challenging, they’re traveling longer distances, they’re dealing with adolescence, managing different responsibilities, and their time. It might derail some people.”

As Gilson notices these flaws in the system at Lane, she does not simply sit back and watch it unfold. Gilson has talked to Anderson about if Lane increases the difficulty of their curriculum, Lane must also provide an equal opportunity to give restorative resources.

“We push rigor, rigor, rigor and that’s great. If someone wants it, they got it in spades here,” Gilson said. “Like I always say this to Ms. Anderson, if we’re going to slam these kids with a lot of academic demands-that’s fine-but in equal measure provide opportunities to learn how to manage stress, time to decompress, so they can synthesize what they’re learning. So they can sleep, eat, find out what kind of leader they are, or what kind of follower they are, or pursue an interest. That’s just as important.”

Besides restorative practices, Gilson also offers drop-in on Tuesdays 4th-6th period in 213 for “Organization/Study Skills/Stress/Anxiety Drop In Clinic.”

Andros, speaking for the whole counseling department, said, “If you feel like this, don’t feel any issue is too small. Nothing is too small. I will listen and offer an ear for anything in your life. If you like want a slice of life for a real conversation with an adult that you can trust that isn’t your parent, please, come in.”

And as I finished my interviews with these professionals, I realized that I had symptoms of generalized anxiety and now that I had a name for it, I could see it symptoms showing in my peers.

I want you to learn from my article that feeling anxious all the time isn’t normal… and I hope you will do something about it.