On Dec. 31, 2013, Sing Tao Daily ran a lengthy article exposing mental health issues that have plagued some students attending Stuyvesant High School, New York’s elite public high school. Below is a condensed version of the article.
One day in May, a conference room at the Sheraton Hotel in New York’s Flushing district was packed with more than 300 Chinese parents. They were there to listen to the annual speech of the principal of the Success Cram School, who is known simply as Teacher Wang. The theme of the speech was emblazoned on a banner on the stage: “How to get into Stuyvesant High School.”
“Every time I see a Stuyvesant student, I see a Harvard candidate,” said Teacher Wang, who in 2013 helped more than 30 children gain admission into Stuyvesant, the top public high school in New York City and one of the best in the country.
The scene is not rare in the Chinese community, where such “cram” schools prepare students for the single test required for entry into one of the city’s few highly specialized high schools. With the highest bar for scores, Stuyvesant is the most coveted target.
In this atmosphere, few ask: What if my child doesn’t belong there?
Eighteen-year-old Gary Hor knows the feeling of not belonging. Hor got into Stuyvesant in 2009. But he didn’t graduate with his classmates last summer. He has to wait until next January, when he will graduate from Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School. “I love FDR. It’s so easy to do well there,” said Hor. He paused for a few seconds, and then added: “It’s a school for the failures.”
At Mark Twain, the so-called “junior high school for geniuses” in Brooklyn, Hor was used to being one of the top students. But at Stuyvesant, things were very different.
“I know people who took all the honors classes, the AP classes, participated in three sports teams and still got good grades. Everyone expects you to do well. If you do not, you are not worth making friends with,” said Hor.
Hor did not always sleep well when he was in junior high. Under pressure at Stuyvesant, he developed insomnia and depression. Most nights, he could only sleep for three hours. By December 2010, the situation got so bad that he was not able to go to school anymore.
To be sure, Hor said the breakdown was not all from the pressure at school. There were also some “personal issues” that he doesn’t want to talk about publicly. But he said: “I constantly think, if I had chosen a different school my life could have been better.”
With the help of psychologists from the Hamilton Madison House, a social service organization in Chinatown, Hor has been recovering. Earlier this year, he transferred to FDR and resumed school there.
Hor said he likes his current life. But he doesn’t have very specific ambitions. “I just want to get into a college. Any college. To study anything,” Hor said.
The last words of a novelist
In a school that boasts famous alumni like U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Hollywood star Lucy Liu, students who develop urgent mental health problems like Hor may be in the small minority.
According to New York City Fire Department data that was obtained by Legal Services NYC through freedom of information requests and provided to Sing Tao, from 2005 to 2010, Stuyvesant called ambulances only nine times for emotionally disturbed students. That compares with 26 times for Bronx High School of Science, a similar-sized specialized high school, and much lower than the citywide average for schools.
But it is hard to fathom the exact scale of chronic mental health disease in a particular school. The city’s Department of Education won’t release data, citing students’ privacy. Students and their families often try to hide their situations from the school as well.
Most people don’t connect mental health issues with academically successful students in specialized high schools. “Emotional problems among successful students are often overlooked because people don’t expect them to get these problems,” said Chi-Kit Ho, clinical social work supervisor at the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center.
However vague the picture, mental health issues nonetheless cast a shadow. Related posts from Stuyvesant students and parents show up on the Internet every now and then.
A teacher who has been working in the school for more than two years said among the 170 students in her classes, every semester there are always a few who suddenly have to take weeks or months off from school because of mental problems.
And Peter Yee, deputy director of Hamilton Madison House, says he gets more Stuyvesant students than from any other school, though he won’t give specific numbers.
Among those who knew the problem well was Ned Vizzini. After he graduated from the school in 1999, Vizzini quickly became a well-known writer of young adult novels. One of the books that made him famous was the 2006 hit “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” about the experience of a teenager from a highly competitive high school who was hospitalized in a mental health ward after a failed suicide attempt.
In an interview in September, Vizzini told Sing Tao he had had suicidal thoughts during his teenage years. He thought it came more from his own tendency to romanticize suicide than the pressures in high school. “I thought suicide was a sexy and artistic idea,” said Vizzini. But he said the fictional high school in the book is based on Stuyvesant.
“Stuyvesant is a highly competitive school. This competition could be extremely damaging,” said Vizzini, who had a good friend with depression in high school. “One day he suddenly disappeared from school. It turned out he was in a mental health ward. I went to visit him. He seemed happier in the hospital than at school.”
Vizzini said he’d like to share with the school administration his suggestions on alleviating the mental health problem, such as requiring students to write down a suicide prevention hotline number, reduce the number of AP courses the school offers, and to allow each student three “mental health days” per year so they can take time out from school when they need to adjust.
But he had no chance. On December 19, the 32-year-old writer committed suicide by leaping off the apartment building of his parents’ home in Brooklyn.
The harm of competition
Vizzini’s tragedy may be an individual case. But his opinion on the competitive pressures in Stuyvesant is shared by many other students and parents.
The school offers 30 AP courses, the most among public schools. It also issues its own diploma to graduates with much higher requirements than the Regents diploma issued by the Department of Education. Everyone in the Stuyvesant community knows the line: “You can only have two out of three things at Stuy: sleep, social life, grades.”
Compared with similar specialized high schools, the pressure at Stuyvesant is seen by those with knowledge to be greater. “Students at Bronx Science don’t always think they are the best. So they are more relaxed when they get some academic setbacks,” said Larry Sit, former vice president of the parents association at Stuyvesant whose two sons graduated from Stuyvesant and Bronx Science respectively.
“I have compared Stuy with other less competitive schools, and the general feeling I get is that the less competitive the school was, the happier the student,” said Toshihiro Noguchi, a Stuyvesant graduate who is now a senior at Cornell University. At Stuyvesant, “people would ask each other what they got on every test,” said Noguchi. “I recall that competition was not something that I was particularly fond of and it got to me at certain times.”
Wenshan Shih, Noguchi’s mother and a professor of Asian Studies at St. John’s University, remembers when her son began at Stuyvesant, his grades started to drop. He was more and more silent, and even stopped speaking to his parents for a long time. Only when he started to tour colleges in the 11th grade did Noguchi become happier. “We worried about him so much. Then when he saw there weren’t as many classes in college as there were at Stuyvesant, he saw some hope. When he got into college, he became a happy person,” said Shih.
The barriers to transfer
During the difficult times, Shih had thought about transferring Noguchi to another school. But the DOE’s policy doesn’t allow students from one specialized high school to transfer to another specialized high school. Normally, they can only choose between transfer schools or zoned schools, neither matching the quality of specialized high schools. “To transfer to those schools may not make him feel better,” said Shih, who eventually gave up on the idea.
Hsu Jen Yu, mother of a former Stuyvesant student named Danny, knows how tough the transfer process can be. When Danny got into Stuyvesant in 2007, he found it was hard to make friends. The loneliness dragged his mood down. The second year got worse. In the first week in October, Danny told his mother: “If I stay in the school, you’ll see my body in the East River before graduation.”
Yu was startled. She started to work on her son’s transfer. The DOE granted the transfer but assigned Danny to Washington Irving, a school that was later marked for eventual closure because of poor performance.
To get her son into the High School for Environmental Studies, a better school where he had friends, Yu begged for help from almost everyone on her rolodex. She eventually succeeded. But it took her a month, and “I lost 30 pounds during the month,” said Yu.
But for some students and their parents, the barriers to transfer are not only in the policies but also in their own minds. “Some students and parents would not leave because they think it’s ‘losing face’,” said Ho from the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center, who had once spent six months persuading a depressed Stuyvesant student to transfer.
The late novelist Vizzini understood this mindset. “At Stuy, no one would talk about their mental health problems. That would be seen as a sign of weakness,” he said.
The challenges for the principal
Stuyvesant had been under the leadership of principal Stanley Teitel for 13 years until his abrupt retirement last summer following a cheating scandal. During his tenure, the school made huge gains on the academic front.
But some of his policies aimed at improving academic performance also pushed struggling students closer to the edge. For example, students who received three “Needs Improvement” grades or one “Unsatisfactory” grade were banned from participating in extracurricular activities.
The impact on the students is reflected in an article written by former student Wes Schierenbeck for The Spectator, the school’s student newspaper, in June 2010, right after he dropped out before senior year. In the article, Schierenbeck, who loves writing and theatre, recalled the experience of being pulled out from a show at school by an assistant principal because he didn’t get good-enough grades.
He compared this to the impact of his father’s sudden debilitating stroke when he was 11 years old. “While losing my father hurt my life, having everything I cared about snatched from me by the [school] administration hurt more,” Schierenbeck wrote.
Ho from Charles B. Wang also knows how inflexible the school is to students who need alternative care. A few years ago, Ho called the guidance counselor of a Stuyvesant student who had serious depression and asked whether the student could be allowed to take four to five periods of class per day rather than the eight periods mandated.
But the answer was “Absolutely not.” Ho was dismayed. “I did that with other schools. There was no problem,” adding: “Stuyvesant has a culture of not helping troubled kids.”
Teitel, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was replaced by the new principal Jie Zhang. As a former principal of the Queens High School for the Sciences at York College, a specialized high school with 400 students, and the mother of a current Stuyvesant student and a Stuyvesant graduate, Zhang seems to understand the pressures at the school.
“York is a small school. The competition among students is not as sharp. Stuyvesant has so many students. The competition is very intensive. We do have students who cannot bear the pressure,” said Zhang.
On September 27 last year, the new principal addressed the parents for the first time at a Parents’ Association meeting. She told them the school may look into the grading system to see whether there is a way to ease the pressure without affecting the quality of education.
In October, Zhang launched a mandatory course for all ninth graders, inviting mental health professionals to teach students how to cope with the transition from junior high to high school. The school is also considering whether to reduce the 10 periods offered daily to nine periods.
But the implementation of these policies is not easy. The DOE doesn’t provide extra funds for mental health services at schools. The costs of the mandatory course for the ninth graders has to be absorbed by the school.
Also, not all students welcome such policies. Last November, brothers Jack and David Cahn, both students at the school, wrote in the Huffington Post about some of the planned policies with the headline “Don’t Take My Stress Away.”
They said: “It is a shame that the school attempts to weaken the workload, competition and pressure, the very aspects of Stuyvesant that are key contributors to our success as students and people.”
But the toughest challenge Zhang faces is from the parents, especially the Chinese parents. “Sometimes we think the kid needs professional help. But the parents would say, my kid was just lazy this year,” said Zhang. “The school is very frustrated and the kid’s treatment only gets delayed.”
The side effect of Tiger Mom
More than 70 percent of Stuyvesant students are Asian, and the Chinese are the largest subgroup. In traditional Chinese culture, the concept of mental health is very vague.
“Most Chinese parents are in denial when facing their children’s mental health problems,” said Hui-Ling Hsu, a certified social worker who’s been providing mental health services in New York for many years.
Kah Hong Goh, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at New York University who is a resident at Gouverneur Hospital, knows how stubborn Chinese parents can be.
“Caucasian parents would tell the doctor the details of their kids’ symptoms. Chinese parents would tell the kid ‘do not tell the doctor about your suicide attempt’ because they worry the record would affect the kid’s future,” said Goh. “Also, some Chinese parents tell us firmly to not contact the school.”
Compared with the overlooked mental health issues, Chinese parents are almost obsessed with the Intelligence Quotient of their kids. Yee from the Hamilton Madison House said once a Chinese mother brought her high school son to the organization and asked for an IQ test.
The test showed the kid’s IQ was normal. But the mother didn’t believe the result and asked for the test to be done again. The kid’s cousin was admitted by Stanford University at 16. The mother believed it must be a low IQ that stopped her son from achieving the same.
This case might be extreme but it reflects the popular Tiger Mom type of parenting in Chinese families. According to research conducted by Desiree Qin, associate professor in human development and family studies at Michigan State University, in 2007-2009, Chinese students at Stuyvesant are under greater pressure than their Caucasian schoolmates, and are more likely to develop symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Qin thinks the relationship between children and parents in Chinese families is a major cause. “Tiger Mom style of parenting often estranges the children from the parents,” said Qin.
Xu Z. Chen, a child psychiatrist specializing in new Chinese immigrants, agrees. “The Chinese-style education encourages children to set their life goal when they are kids. Chinese parents often have very high expectations of the children. When the kids cannot fulfill the expectations, the parents would blame them,” said Chen.
This seemed to be what happened to Hor. His parents are from Guangzhou, China. His mom is a housekeeper in a hotel and his dad works in the kitchen of another hotel.
Hor’s parents pay a lot of attention to his academic performance. Hor has been spending almost all his holidays and weekends in cram schools since third grade. When his grades started dropping in high school, his parents were not tolerant.
“If they were more emotionally supportive, if they didn’t yell at me, if they said to me it’s OK to not be the best, I may not have had to leave Stuy,” said Hor. “But that’s how Asian parents are.”
Hsu, the social worker, said to parents: “All parents want their kids to attend the best school. But sometimes you have to decide whether you want your kid to be made sick because of huge pressure he cannot bear, or whether you want him to grow up healthily and happily with your support and care.”
Nov. 16, 2015: View a PDF of the original story in Chinese from the print edition, courtesy of Sing Tao Daily, at http://bit.ly/1MhWnNN