Has South Done Enough to Account for Student Stress and Mental Health?

graphic by Caitlin Ang


by Hana Futai and Grace Sousa, Opinions writers

The atmosphere at South is surely competitive: 63% of students participate in at least one AP class and 71% describe their lives as somewhat or very stressful.

South’s history invokes an essential question: has the administration done enough to help its students’ mental health?

In the past nine years, the administration has tried to support students by eliminating the weighted grade point average (GPA), reducing competitive academic titles and making changes to our school-day schedule, yet students still think that the administration needs to take more action towards reducing school-related stress. 

Even with these extensive changes, the competitive atmosphere at South lingers. It’s time we take pressure off of the administration, and we start looking at our own academic habits.  

In an effort to reduce academic competition, the administration got rid of the National Honors Society (NHS) and valedictorian titles — academic honors that heavily relied on GPA. While volunteer work and leadership experience also factored into the NHS’s selection process, only students with at least a 3.0 GPA were eligible. 

The administration’s recent efforts to shift students’ focus from the GPA culminated in the [year] decision to replace valedictorian with the Senior Cup. Instead of bestowing the title of valedictorian upon the graduating student with the highest GPA, South shifted to prioritize dedication and leadership in considering the highest honor given to graduating seniors. Students and teachers now nominate and vote for Senior Cup finalists based on students’ contributions towards the school and student body. Without the title of valedictorian, the school encourages students to shift their focus from obtaining a perfect GPA to placing more value on character. 

In the spring of 2020, continuing its attempts to deemphasize the value of grades, North and South administrators  removed weighted GPAs from transcripts, hoping to lessen the pressure of taking higher level courses. Students overwork themselves because they succumb to the pressure of taking Honors and AP classes. 

By maintaining the GPA on a 4.0 scale, students won’t feel the pressure of taking harder classes; now, students’ GPA reflects their proficiency within a more standard level that doesn’t consider “harder” classes. Even still, students continue to take “hard” classes to appear impressive to colleges and their peers, creating a schedule that they cannot keep up with and an unmanageable workload. 

In another effort to improve factors impacting mental health, the administration switched the school start time in 2021. In previous years, school started at 7:40 a.m., but the administration chose to delay it until 9:00 a.m, following research that a later start would improve students’ learning and stress levels. This extra hour and 20 minutes encourages students to get a better quality sleep and, in theory, allows more time to do homework. 

All of these attempts to aid student’s mental health have fallen on deaf ears. Students still take on just as much and continue to perpetuate South’s stressful and competitive atmosphere. It falls on each student to change this culture. We must take responsibility to manage the difficulty levels of our classes. 

We can’t blame the “system” or the administration for a personal decision to four AP classes just to best a friend or classmate. How would the cycle ever end? The school even has support in place for these personal decisions: guidance counselors who remind students to choose courses fit for them and require students to sign consent forms when they take on too much. When a student signs their course registration form, they are taking responsibility for their own workload and acknowledging their opposition to the school’s recommendation.

I know it’s hard, but we must stop comparing our courses and grades. We have to do whatever we can to cut out academic competition — whether that’s walking away from a conversation, biting our lip before habitually saying “whatd’ya get!” after a test or physically plugging our ears. There will always be academic pressure, but it’s up to us as to how we choose to respond.

I would be lying if I told you that I’m not immersed in our competitive atmosphere, but I’ve learned that one of the most crucial life lessons is to stop comparing yourself to others. You are enough. As cheesy as it may sound, you are not your grades.


by Angela Tao, Opinions writer

I’m more than familiar with those sleepless nights; yet another hour ticks by as I hold my sore eyes open to the incessant blinking of my cursor. Often I am left wondering how many hours I spent actually learning, rather than appeasing my teachers with the evidence of effort. And I’m afraid of the answer — encouraged by our society’s grind-hustle culture, I may have sacrificed actual understanding for arbitrary completion.

At South, alleged test policies and flyers advertising decompression sessions appear to offer students support. But still, every day I am surrounded by friends’ complaints about not being smart enough, having slept only four hours or neglecting extracurriculars. Who are the cogs in this relentless machine? It’s the administration — only they can change this system to protect students’ sanity.

The root of the problem that keeps us up all night lies in our school’s fundamental pedagogical methods. Teachers assign homework to assess understanding of the material, but too often it becomes busy work for students to check off a list. While some students do idle, a significant portion of the student body consists of hard workers striving to meet these toilsome expectations, at the expense of their own well-being. 

This heavy coursework is not only ineffective in helping students learn; busy work and monotony drowns out key concepts and actual comprehension. When it comes to tests, students are already so hard-pressed that they tend to study last-minute by memorizing information they’ll forget within two weeks; assessments don’t necessarily assess comprehension as much as cramming abilities. 

It’s like trying to use a ruler to measure around a cylinder. It’s not the cylinder’s problem that its circumference is round, but the issue with using a straight edge. Likewise, it’s not that the students don’t understand the material, but that the curriculum’s structure isn’t effective.

Formal policies limiting the amount of work teachers can assign have never existed at South. There have only ever been suggestions, i.e. restricting homework per night to half an hour for each class. There aren’t standard practices for contacting teachers to request extended deadlines, either.

When it comes to existing procedures, the current policies regarding assessments fall flat. The Summer ‘22 Orange Lion Update merely states that “Students with more than two major assessments occurring on the same day are encouraged to appeal to their teachers as early as possible to reschedule one of these assessments.”

Keywords: ‘students’, and ‘encouraged’; this policy relies on the student. Rescheduling can be an incredible hassle; WIN block sign-ups are a known mess, and spots can fill up so rapidly that the students who most need to visit their teachers are unable to get in. As WIN blocks are also meeting times for instructors, not all days are available for students to ask questions or make up tests. If a student has multiple teachers to see but not enough time, it can become a cycle of lateness and hurry. This tedious process renders the whole policy useless in practice despite its potential in theory.

Academics aside, many students also have extracurricular activities to consider. According to the Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook, Newton Public Schools (NPS) aims to “educate the whole child by striving for excellence in academic, artistic, physical, interpersonal and vocational pursuits.” This description of a holistic education would include extracurricular activities, but the current lack of effective policies when it comes to academics makes it so students hardly have time to pursue non-scholastic activities.

Teen specialists warn of the dangers surrounding academic exhaustion and general mental health crises, concluding that adolescents need to escape their monotonous schedules — and mental health days fit the bill. Rather than enforcing attendance policies demanding students’ constant presence, which can damage their will to learn as it’s something unnecessarily strict and borderline unreasonable, the administration should let them take a break from the burnout. 

Instituting mental health days is yet another tool at administrators’ disposal to keep its students from drowning — after all, what good is educating a student unable to be educated?

Since 2019, several states, including Connecticut, Maine and Virginia, have been allowing students mental health days off from school. These efforts were often initiated and supported by students themselves; clearly, the issue of student mental health is present far beyond South.

“School” shouldn’t be a word uttered with dread and disdain. We, as students, try to make it work at the expense of our well-being. For too long all the responsibilities have weighed on the individual student’s shoulders, leaving administrators’ stronger backs light as a feather. It’s time for the administration to balance the scale.