Educators reflect on expectations and pressures students face

Teens burn candle at both ends in attempt to keep up

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Douglas County School District has an 90.7% graduation rate across its 16 high schools. Most of those graduates have been told throughout their education that they should attend college after high school. Xandria Westergard is a Mountain Vista High School graduate who has worked in the school district for eight years at Highlands Ranch High School.

“I think that that was the prerogative, then and now, is the push for college. I think that that kind of puts everybody into a box. They kind of feel like there’s that outside expectation, that pressure to go through with that course,” Westergard said.

With the expectation of attending college comes the feeling that a student must have an outstanding resume to show. Westergard works in the HRHS health office and sees the impact this pressure has on students’ well-being.

“I see some students, the same ones come in and over and over. They’re just kind of burning the candle at both ends. There’s students that do sports and other activities. There’s only so much time in a day and they push themselves to the back burner. They’re not eating lunch, they’re not sleeping well, they’re staying up too late, that sort of thing. They’re not prioritizing themselves with all the other stuff that’s going on,” Westergard said.

Students’ need for performance has bled onto the field, according to Ponderosa High School’s football coach Jaron Cohen. Cohen has taught and coached high schoolers for 24 years in Connecticut and Colorado. In recent years, he has seen a shift in students’ focus during the season. According to Cohen, students have begun to place more emphasis on their personal performance over the team aspect of the sport.

“There’s just a lot more caring about their recognition. Kids are just so concerned about it. There’s more concern about their individual performance than in 1995. At the end of the day there’s going to be kids who didn’t have a good experience because they didn’t get 10 touchdowns, ” Cohen said.

Longtime educator Sally Graham — a teacher at Castle View High School who has taught for 37 years in public and private schools across Louisiana and Colorado — has recognized the pressure on students to attend college and be involved in school for the sake of a resume to show admissions teams throughout her career.

“Since the beginning, there has always been pressure on kids to go to college. I’m always going to advocate for that, because I think a college education is invaluable. Even if you don’t go into a field where you need a college education, the experience of learning how to operate in that field is invaluable,” Graham said, “But, I will never tell a kid that they’re going to be less of a person if they don’t (go to college). I don’t expect my students to be anything other than who they are. There is nothing wrong with not wanting to go to college. My life experience has shown me that that just doesn’t work across the board.”

While students may not be expressly told not going to college equates to failure, that message is absorbed by students throughout the district.

“When I first started teaching, DECA was Distributive Education,” Graham said. “It was for those kids who really didn’t want to go to college, but they wanted to have a career. You’ll find now that those classes are only offered in high schools that are older. The buildings themselves have shown a pressure toward college, whereas kids are just kids, and they want to do what they feel good at.”

This downplaying of career options outside of getting a degree leads students to make their high school decisions based on how helpful it will be to their ability to attend college, rather than what they enjoy.

“Less and less kids really look at it as a way to be a part of a team and all the good stuff that comes with that,” Cohen said. “There’s so many parents who pay so much money and so much time private training at a very early age. That parent pressure is bad. It’s not to make your kid have fun or be the best he can be, it’s doing it for a scholarship. Kids really look at high school football as a way to get a scholarship or get recognition. Youth sports is crazy. Kids will play year-round and travel every weekend. Is that really fun? I don’t know, it doesn’t sound like fun to me.”

In the classroom and on the field, the best way for a high school student to grow as a person is to have reasonable expectations. Westergard hopes that future students can grow up in an education system that does not paint college as the only path to a successful life.

“I think there needs to be a shift in society towards two circles,” Westergard said. “There was a time where I think college was the answer. That was where all the jobs were headed. But anymore — especially with technology and how integrated that is into our lives and how students have grown up with that — I don’t know that that’s necessarily where they need to head in life. I think if we had jobs that had sustainable income, and we just had students trying for whatever, you know, gave them a good life, work balance, and they were able to live off of the pay and do something that they enjoy, I think that that would be a better push: focusing on balance and happiness.”

Madeline Robinson served as a 2022 intern with Colorado Community Media.

(Editor's Note: This story was corrected to reflect current graduation rates for the Douglas County School District.)

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