Photographs by Toshi Tasaki
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Robert Schork [Moderator]: What do you think have been the best aspects of the Westchester high school experience?
Margarita Saja, mother of Elisa Mateo-Saja, White Plains High School: What I love about our school is that there are so many choices of sports, clubs, and academics.
Rebecca Masson, mother of Sophie Masson, Scarsdale High School: The quality of the teachers is really impressive; they support the students and go above and beyond just teaching.
Mary Kohrherr, mother of Henry Titcomb, Sleepy Hollow High School: I think the proximity to New York City, in terms of arts, is a great thing for the kids.
Ruth Lorenzo, mother of Serena Sarkiso, Lincoln High School, Yonkers: The school’s support system, the teachers and the principals. They are close-knit with the students. From freshman year, everything was about college; it still is.
Christina Dochtermann, mother of Jaeger Dochtermann, Fox Lane High School: I think there is some wonderful collaboration among the schools. You look at New York State School Music Association, some of the music and arts where Westchester schools come together for these high-level competitions, or the science competitions, like the Westlake Science Fair.
Steve Kaplan, father of Spencer Kaplan, Blind Brook High School: I agree about enrichment opportunities and the quality of the faculty. And compared to other places around the state, we seem to be faring better in terms of budgets. So there’s more consistency in the programming.
Ramón Fernandez, father of Elizabeth Fernandez-Fermin, Peekskill High School: The diversity in the school is very important. And sometimes, participation in sports is an incentive to keep students doing better in their academics.
Marianne Boyer, mother of Jose Boyer, Yorktown High School: Diversity, being involved in sports, band, and the tremendously supportive faculty.
Anita Maher, mother of Danny Maher, Ardsley High School: Dittoing everybody, I think it’s the variety of enrichment. My kids tend to be extremely academic and artsy, so it’s like the whole breadth of it is there. I like that there is community service, band, sports, and drama. Also, the faculty is so involved in their lives, really caring; I think that’s the big difference.
Shirley Taylor, mother of Rebecca Taylor, Rye Neck High School: Rye Neck is a smaller school, and they have followed my daughter since kindergarten. The counselors, they fell in love and had a connection all the way. She has followed through and been on the accelerated course.
Margarita: The sports and music can be very competitive, and I don’t always like the competition part, but if the kids want more, they can get more.
Anita: They also do an excellent job with students who are disabled. It’s not just “reach the top.” They take the very bottom, and those less fortunate and really work with them. They have excellent programs. I remember one of my children had difficulties, and this was the area to go to. It’s known; it’s recognized.
Rebecca: Parent involvement is really high in these communities.
What do you think are the worst aspects of the Westchester high school experience?
Margarita: There’s only one lunch period, and sometimes the lines are really long, and not everybody can get lunch. If you’re that last person on line, you have like three minutes to eat, you know?
Rebecca: I would say the competition and the pressure on students. There’s a lot of high-level students in the area, so there’s a lot of competition to get better grades, good SAT scores and to get into a good school. So kids do feel a lot of pressure. In Scarsdale, there have been suicides, and there have been a lot of kids in counseling. It’s really a big problem that they’re addressing, with counselors, as well as parent education and involvement. It’s about trying to figure out where you need to be pressuring your child and where you need to ease off.
Ruth: In Yonkers, the balloting process for high school is very discouraging. You get to ballot for three schools, and where they place you is where you’re going to go, which I think is not right.
Christina: I echo on Scarsdale. Everything seems to have gotten compressed. What used to happen in kindergarten now is preschool. What happened in fifth grade is now in first grade. Many of these kids are over-programmed and overstressed. You talk to kids, and they’re talking about stress and anxiety. Fox Lane does a wonderful job of trying to get the kids to be more in the moment. Yes, there’s that end goal, but how do you be in the moment here and now?
Steve: I was struck that a lot of you mentioned diversity. In Blind Brook, my son only has about 130 classmates, and it doesn’t have a lot of diversity. It doesn’t mirror the nation at large. In some of these smaller districts, the kids have been together since kindergarten. Some students get branded a certain way and never have that chance to re-create themselves. Also, a lot of kids are being tutored, and in some cases they don’t need tutoring;… a lot of things are driven by parents. I was a school-board member for six years in Blind Brook, and you see a lot of things about what parents say and do; there’s a lot of pressure from parents. There’s also a lot of pressure among the kids themselves and expectations from faculty.
Ramón: In Peekskill, participation and parent involvement really need to go up.
Marianne: We have great schools, and we offer great programs. Some parents are involved; some aren’t. And some… I hate to be negative, but sometimes parents are overly involved, to the point it’s not healthy. And yes, we are competitive, but sometimes I think we are too competitive, and I don’t think it’s a benefit to our children. I consider myself an involved parent, but to a point. And I think that balance is really important.
Anita: I think the most negative thing is the over-scheduling. As a parent, I step back on it, because I want them to make the mistakes while they’re still home.
“We value schools for all the intangibles, but no ranking can tabulate all those things.” — Steve Kaplan
What do you think is the source of the over-programming?
Anita: I don’t think it’s the school.
Mary: When you have a high-achieving student, you have someone who they all want to mold, so they can say, “Look at my star student.” So you’re pulled in so many different directions. I tell my kids of course you want to do well, but you have to pace yourself. It’s a tough balance and every kid is different.
Steve: Kids feel that they have to do all these things. Colleges want to see students who have passion, but the passions don’t shine through because a lot of kids have seven things, and they all want to say they’re president of X, Y, and Z club.
Do you think colleges are putting pressure on them to be well-rounded students?
Anita: I do think the schools have been attuned to “be well-rounded — colleges need well-rounded.” But it’s also the students.
Christina: Well, they keep saying the Common App [a website/app that allows students to apply to multiple colleges at once] has like 10 lines for activities, “better have every one of them filled with something meaningful.” The kids are beside themselves trying things and trying to make that pedigree.
Shirley: I agree with what everyone has said. When Rebecca was selecting classes for 11th grade, she had all these AP classes. I was like, that is way too many. I talked to her counselor, and I said she can’t do all that. And the counselor said, “Let her try,” and I said no. Rebecca was upset that I didn’t let her do it, but I said you’re not going to take all of your APs now. I don’t understand why her counselor was going to let her do it.
Steve: Part of the ranking of schools is about how many APs kids have taken. So the media is pushing that because the schools feel they have to do it.
We run a data chart every March as part of the high schools package, but we don’t rank the schools; they’re listed alphabetically.
Anita: There comes a point when parents have to pull back… like Shirley was saying: “No, you can’t do that.” It’s like the opt-out movement; it starts with the parents.
Rebecca: I think a lot of the pressure is coming from parents, as far as applying to college.
Is there too much homework in high school?
Mary: It depends which kid. My kid this year,… I never see him doing homework. I guess he is; I don’t know.
Margarita: I’ve seen more study halls getting worked into the schedules, so they’re getting at least half their homework done in school. And I do think’s it’s important that they offer the variety of AP classes. My daughter stays up until 2 in the morning on a regular basis. It’s too much.
Steve: I’m kind of ambivalent on homework. If you don’t have the rigor and the homework now, then when you get to college, you’re not going to be successful.
Mary: Some of these kids can do it, but others have peer pressure, and they are setting themselves up for failure, because they can’t do it.
Rebecca: I think the homework is manageable. It’s just that these kids are so over-scheduled, they don’t have time to do it. By the time they even start doing homework, it’s 9 p.m. They have dinner, maybe a bit of free time or talk on the phone. And it’s not healthy. They need time to socialize and spend time with their families.
Something has to give at that point. So what gives? Family time? Downtime?
Rebecca: Dinner. No dinnertime.
Steve: The media is setting the criteria. So what makes a good school? Is it how many APs? There are so many things that make a good school. We value schools for all the intangibles, but no ranking can tabulate all those things.
Mary: I’m Sleepy Hollow High School, and I feel like a lot of people have a negative feeling toward it. It’s very diverse, and our rankings of the state tests are never up like Scarsdale and other places, but I find it is the richest school district in so many ways. This is what the real world is, and the kids are ready for it. We also have had the Special Olympics at our school two years in a row. There’s so much joy in that school.
Regarding teaching for the test, do you think that’s what’s happening in your high schools? Is there too much emphasis on that, at the expense of actually enjoying the high school experience and appreciating what they’re they’re learning?
Mary: I feel like it’s not. It’s about being in the moment. And every kid is so different. At least the experience my son is having now, because it’s all music, acting, and performing. There’s so much opportunity; I feel none of that pressure, and I don’t think [Henry] feels the pressure.
Anita: Ardsley definitely is not like that. As a matter of fact, they gear more toward: “What’s your passion? Stick with your passion.”
Margarita: I don’t feel that the high school teaches to the test. The SAT and ACT courses, we have to pay out-of-pocket for those, and they go to classes outside of school for that.
Rebecca: I think they are helping students find their passion and enjoy their lives before they go into the workforce.
Steve: There are some classes that are teaching to the test, at least in our district. Our school has had a session each year to explain the SAT and the ACT, and they bring in Kaplan Test Prep. I feel it’s almost like a sales thing. I don’t think the school should be bringing in outside test prep. I think the guidance department should be able to handle it, tell the kids what they need to know, and that’s it.
Christina: When Common Core came in, that put a huge amount of pressure on teachers to teach to the test. But there are teachers who are so engaging and dynamic. I know my children’s teachers are all about getting the kids to think. It is not about teaching to the test, not just about the end result. It’s how do you get there.
How about students who aren’t thinking about college yet or who may choose another path?
Margarita: That’s something else I like about the schools: Several Westchester schools collaborate with BOCES. So it’s a theme nowadays that college is really not for everybody. Kids have the option in 11th and 12th grade to go a half-day to BOCES and learn a trade. And I think that’s a really great option.
They offer quite a lot there, and they’re very good programs.
Margarita: Yeah, there’s mechanics, cosmetology. I have seen kids who want to go to college who, for instance, took cosmetology, because they’ll charge their fellow students, and that’s their part-time job, to do eyebrows [laughs].
Rebecca: I know some students now are taking a gap year between high school and college, which I also find refreshing. They’re not totally focused on just getting into college but traveling and getting some real-life experience. In Scarsdale, they do senior options the second half of the year, where they do an internship at a company, so they get real-world experience, and some of them continue to work for that gap year.
Ramón: I think sometimes we have plans that all the kids have to go to college, but not every kid wants to, or can, for various reasons.
What is the biggest social challenge for your kids in high school?
Anita: As a senior, the biggest challenge is that his friends were seniors who graduated. So, with most of his friends gone, he had to re-establish friendships. If kids don’t have friends across the grades, it can be a challenge in senior year.
Christina: Our greatest social pressure is the fact that pressure is what drives kids to want to be involved in so many different things. They are trying so hard to fit in and diversify themselves, not just be the sports kid or just be the academic kid — they want to be doing all these different things. The social pressures aren’t so much the classics of yesteryear, of drugs, sex, alcohol. The social pressure is really to be the best and be in all these different things.
Rebecca: It’s hard for kids to have a social life and go to parties without having to worry about: Are they going to be drinking alcohol? Are they going to be smoking? Are they going to be having sex? Sometimes my daughter won’t go to parties because she knows a certain crowd is going to be there, and she doesn’t want to be involved in it.
Mary: I struggle with it because you want your child to have some experience with those things before they go off to college. If something goes horribly wrong at that point, you know…they’re not home.
“My children’s teachers are all about getting the kids to think. It is not about teaching to the test, not just the end result.”
— Christina Dochtermann
Do you think peer pressure is a real thing?
Mary: Absolutely, yeah.
Shirley: I don’t know, because my daughter hasn’t talked about any of this stuff. [I ask her:] “Why don’t you want to go to the parties?” and she says, “I’m just going to study.”
Mary: Maybe because she knows that these things are going on. But kids need to find kids who are like-minded, because you have to be comfortable saying no and being in those situations. Some kids go to college, and they just go crazy if they’ve never experienced it.
Anita: That’s why I said earlier: “Make the mistakes under our roof.”
Shirley: What do you think I should do then? Say, “Go to the parties”? [laughs]
Steve: You can always host the party in your house…
Mary: Yes! That was the other thing.
Rebecca: I was surprised to find out the level of what was going on at these parties…. I mean, girls passed out on the side of the street, and people calling ambulances.
Are you shocked by what you hear from your kids about what’s going on and at the ages at which it’s occurring?
Anita: I was shocked about the party buses going to bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs. That shocked the heck out of me.
Mary: And prom, too.
Shirley: So what do they do on the party buses? [laughs]
Mary: When my oldest daughter went for junior prom, the kids would all pitch in, and somebody’s parents would put the bus on the credit card. Then, all of a sudden, you’re sending these kids off with a driver that they’ve tipped extra, so he’ll let them drink on the bus. It’s insane! They don’t do that at Sleepy Hollow; they stopped that two years ago.
Margarita: I talk to my kids a lot about those things, but the party bus I was never comfortable with because you can’t just walk out, and that’s why I always said no to that. I let them go to other parties, because they can always call, and, before texting, we had passwords like, “I gotta feed the dog.”
Mary: I love that. I did that, too.
Margarita: Now you can quietly text, and no one knows that you’re the nerd who doesn’t want to do that, you know?
Steve: Some of the schools are starting to take action. I know spring break is always a concern for seniors. A lot of kids go down to the Bahamas, but some parents go to “shadow” them, as if they know what’s going on.
What about bullying and cyberbullying? Is that an issue here in Westchester?
Mary: I mean, there’s probably bullying. My kids have always said they never see any of it; I don’t know if they’re lying to me or what. I haven’t heard of any cyberbullying in our town, but I’m sure there’s some.
Rebecca: I think it’s more of an issue in middle school.
Steve: I was going to say the same thing.
Rebecca: I think by the time they get to high school, they’ve been educated enough to know what’s acceptable and not, and, on social media, they all kind of include each other. I think there was discrimination — some gay, lesbian — in middle school, and maybe going into high school, but by the time they’re juniors and seniors, they’re a bit more inclusive.
Christina: I agree. We have five elementary schools that converge into one middle school, and at the middle-school level, digital citizenship and cyberbullying and a lot of those topics were addressed because that was where it was coming to a head. By the time they get to high school, technology is used as a tool, not as a weapon, and the kids really are sensitive to the idea of digital footprints.
Steve: I think a lot of the PTAs also sponsor outside consultants to come in and teach them. They work together with the police department, so I think the kids are very aware of a lot of different things. It doesn’t mean they always listen, but they certainly know about it. But I don’t think it’s the biggest, most prevailing issue that we have.
Shirley: I agree with everyone. By high school, they’re too busy, and they’ve already developed the groups they’re going to hang out with.
Marianne: I’ve seen it in our school, mostly middle school. And then they re-educate the students.
Most of you have given your schools high marks for academics. How about for addressing and managing these social issues?
Christina: The home/school community connection is really important within our school, and they are always availing themselves of the outside resources. The community-resource officers, the hospital, the police are really integrated into the school to help the kids understand consequences.
What about drugs and alcohol?
Christina: We go through a lot of education on social-host laws and on all the different levels of legal exposure of hosting parties, not hosting parties. Serving alcohol, or if you have knowledge of it — it’s no joke. You’ll have some parents who’ll say, “Well, pot has become the big issue everywhere.” A lot of kids see alcohol as more serious than pot.
Steve: We have something called community coalition. It includes police, parents, students, faculty, and clergy. All come together and host a variety of things. The police send out things in the beginning of the year, warning about the consequences of hosting a party and what they will do if things happen. We also contract with student-assistant services, which basically is staffing the school a number of days a week with a social worker.
Anita: Our district has also turned some of this over to the kids. They started Safe Rides in our district, but the kids run it. Kids will call because they know it’s a kid who is picking them up, not a parent.
What do you think is the biggest source or subject of disagreement between you and your kids, regarding high school?
Mary: For me, it’s just getting him to get his work done, because he’s so focused on performing and everything else. That and getting the kid to go to sleep!
Steve: Time management.
Rebecca: For my daughter, it’s getting her to focus on the next phase of her life, which is college. I keep telling her, “You need to start looking at schools; we need to start thinking about it.” And she’s just not at all focused on that.
Anita: With mine, it’s reminding them that family matters. They’ve gotten so busy that they’ve forgotten the priority of family, so that’s my biggest argument. We have to have one meal together, and it’s dinner. And that’s always been the rule in my house. You’re either at dinner, or you’re not getting the car. That’s always the battle.