'No Worse Fate Than Failure'
How pressure to keep up overwhelms students in elite [Illinois] schools

by Karen Ann Cullotta, Karen Berkowitz, Kimberly Fornek and Suzanne Baker / © 2017, Pioneer Press; Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


When Naperville North High School student Tessa Newman heard about the suicide of a classmate last school year, she was outraged.

  Furious, not at the classmate, but at a culture she said exacerbates the pressure she and many of her fellow students feel. So Tessa took action.

  “I was just so angry and overwhelmed. I got on my Chromebook at 2 a.m. and essentially wrote down my feelings,” says Tessa.

  Within days, Tessa had posted a 1,458-word essay on The petition, “Naperville North Pressure Culture Must Change,” soon went viral, striking a chord nationwide and prompting fierce debate on the topic.

  “At Naperville North there is one path to success,” Tessa wrote in the piece. “From the age of 13, every prospective Naperville North student understands that this path makes no exceptions, and those who wander off or fall behind are left for failure. Everyone here understands that there is no worse fate than failure.”


The response

  If nothing else, the essay and the response it generated show how much the topic of student stress and educational anxiety is on the minds of kids, parents, teachers, counselors and administrators—some of whom are calling it a burgeoning mental health crisis.

  “Many parents want their children to either meet or surpass what they have achieved, but there’s not a whole lot of room to surpass the success of a parent who is a CEO of a Fortune 500 company,” said Timothy Hayes, assistant superintendent of student services at New Trier High School.


The research

  For months, Pioneer Press has explored the problem of student anxiety and school-related stress. Reporters spoke to students, parents, administrators and public health experts and examined school data.

  The research showed a pervasive, increasing and potentially dangerous problem that affects every aspect of students’ lives—from their emotional and physical health to their future college and career paths.



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