XQ The Super School Project: The Weight Of Expectation Is Heavier In Los Alamos

Courtesy photo
By Anne Kiehl Friedman
XQ Team Member

Isn’t it interesting the way light always brings its shadow? Nowhere has the inescapable duality of existence been more on display than Los Alamos, New Mexico, the fourth stop on our XQ: The Super School Bus Tour.

We’re set up in a parking lot next to Ashley Pond. The pond looks man-made, just too perfect to exist naturally. The pond is round, surrounded by immaculate green grass, and just the right number of ducks paddling as if in a choreographed water ballet.  Mountains rise in this distance, pinkish-brown and jagged, dotted with dark green—there is nothing planned about them. When the sun shines, it’s the perfect temperature. But then the clouds roll in, dark and heavy, with them wind so cold that even in a down jacket I’m shivering. It is a place of stark contrasts.

Los Alamos, New Mexico is a town of about 15,000 people. Approximately one-third of those (~5,000) have at least one PhD.

Think about that for a minute.

“Well, I trained as a clinical psychologist but I’ve spent my career designing missile guidance technology, mostly for NASA.”

“I’m a nuclear physicist.”

“I’m a quantum biochemical engineer investigating the steady-state properties of dark matter resonance in 5th dimension string theory.”

Okay, the last quotation is made up—a word salad amalgam of everything I know about science at the highest levels—but the impression it leaves is accurate. Half the time people explained their professional backgrounds, I just nodded and smiled thinking “I have a vague idea of what that might be.”

To say Los Alamos is highly educated is an understatement. Yet their high school graduation rate is ~80%, no better than the national average. And that isn’t even the biggest problem.

All morning, I kept hearing community members mention “EQ” or “emotional skills” or “social coping skills” as critical components of what students need to learn in school. Given their backgrounds, I expected people to say things like “physics” or “calculus” or “computer modeling,” but no one mentioned the so called “hard skills.” It didn’t make sense to me why they were so focused on “soft skills” until someone mentioned the suicide rate.

In 2014, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for ages 10-24. In 2013, nearly 1 out of every 10 high school students in New Mexico had attempted suicide at some point. The suicide rate for 10-24 year-olds in Los Alamos County is 400% the national average.

Why? The reasons are complicated, but when we hosted our student roundtable in Los Alamos, the students talked about the pressure they felt. One student, headed to Harvard in the Fall, talked about A’s not being enough, that anything less equals failure, and that it’s not just about school but about extracurriculars as well… Another student talked about his academic success being completely disconnected from the skills he needs to feel competent and prepared for life. He’s never balanced a checkbook and college requires sophisticated financial management skills he doesn’t have. He’s anxious, stressed out and scared.

There are thousands of obvious reasons we need to rethink high school, and most are about how the system doesn’t serve the kids at the bottom. But we’re not serving the kids at the top as well as we could be either.  These kids are struggling under the weight of expectations—internal, external, and a combination of both—that are too heavy for a teenager to carry. These are smart kids (really, really smart) and they are the ones we think of as being “successful,” but at what cost?

They say the smallest coffins are the heaviest to carry. The fact that this community is forced to bury its children at 4x the national average, in part because of what our schools do to them, is literally heartbreaking.

How can we rethink high school so that all students—the ones at the bottom and the ones at the top, the ones in the middle and the ones outside the system, the ones with special needs and the ones with special-er needs (don’t we all have special needs?)—ALL students have the chance to reach their highest potential, not just in terms of IQ, but EQ, and XQ? How do we rethink the system so that all students, and all different types of students, have the opportunity to thrive?

No answers yet but teams across the country are working on it. After visiting Los Alamos, I feel an added urgency.

New Mexico was the fourth of many stops as the XQ: Super School Bus traverses the country learning, honoring, and celebrating as we go. Please visit us here.