The Pursuit of Excellence
Arcadia High School, the academic juggernaut, is one of the most outstanding places I know where students who are not the valedictorian or even one of the 49 salutatorians still get admitted into the Ivy League schools. The school’s pursuit of excellence has ranked them 30th out of 1,300+ public high schools in California, according to Niche.com. Academics at Arcadia High School are world class: the average ACT score is 31, the average SAT score is 1340 out of 1600, and at least 35% of the students who graduate have taken at least 1 AP test during their time at the high school. In terms of feeder schools to the UC’s, Arcadia boast the highest amount of admissions into the University of California’s system, according to the UC website; over 361 students were admitted in 2015 from a 895 student body. The 2016 graduating class had over 5 Harvard admits, 69 UC Berkeley admits, 59 UCLA admits, and at least 1 student commit to every school ranked in the US News’s “Top 10 Universities”. The high school’s academic achievements are astounding, but there’s a huge underlying issue to this success: 68.8% of the students are Asian, but they filled 100% of the Class of 2016’s student council and 90% of the salutatorians. A parent at Arcadia High School’s 2016 graduation summarized the high school’s failure in one sentence: “Non-asians are the reasons why our school is ranked so much lower than it should be.” The school’s administration fails to do their job to encourage all of its students to succeed. Asians rely on their success-or-punishment culture to push them into the Ivy League schools. On the other hand African Americans, Hispanics, and even Caucasians do not have such overwhelmingly present success-based cultures, and often find themselves lost among the Yellow Sea of overachievers, their hopes of achieving excellence wither away as time progresses. Not to mention that teachers vastly prefer the easier job of tending to the stellar students who already automatically push themselves to succeed over the students that need the most support and motivation. If Arcadia High School ever wants to truly achieve excellence and further elevate its ranking, it needs to assist the three groups of students that are the most unmotivated to achieve excellence: those whose dreams are not in the STEM field, those who need to find their dreams, and those who cannot consider their dreams because they cannot get past their grades. All three groups need peer and administrative support. The school needs to hire more counselors, so students that need consultation have immediate access. On one hand, addressing these key problems at the high school is Arcadia High School’s responsibility and will promote excellence among all ethnicities in whatever career path calls them. On the other hand, students are equally responsible for their own education.
Motivation drives success, if you are not motivated, it becomes extremely difficult succeed. As mentioned earlier, most Asians rely on their success-or-punishment culture which motivates them to succeed for the sake of their family’s pride and future well being. Fortunately, in terms of academics there are many non-STEM classes that often motivates students to do well in school, such as art, theatre, and music. Yo-Yo Ma, a famous Asian-American cellist and songwriter, focused on this idea in his essay Necessary Edges: Arts, Empathy, and Education, heavily promoting the new phrase “STEAM:” Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math. Ma believes that the arts develop emotional and empathetic intelligence which is fading away in our schools, stating “Empathetic thinking is something that is severely missing in our education today that is only STEM oriented” (259). This is an unfortunate reality in numerous lower income cities across the nation, where many high schools are being forced to defund art programs because of budget cuts. Ma believed that the arts develops an “empathetic thinking [which] is something that is severely missing in our education today” because STEM fields are considered better and more successful than every other field of study (260). The promotion of STEAM at Arcadia High School could motivate even more students to succeed in non science-based careers, which will become viable and respectable to their peers.
During my four years at Arcadia High School, the administration slowly started investing money in art programs by building a new performing arts center, which now houses the theatre and orchestra program. Revamping the theatre program pushed many of my Advanced Drama classmates to do well in school because they had to earn good grades in order to perform; many of them took advantage of the chromebook cart that was given to the department. That being said, Arcadia High School still needs to make a great leap forward in the promotion of the arts and non-STEM classes in their curriculum if they ever wish to achieve excellence for their students and for their ranking.
On the other side of the spectrum, a less spoken of statistic at the high school is that Arcadia also send hundreds of students to community colleges. Unlike popular belief, a good number of student who end up attending a community college from Arcadia High School didn’t go because of poor grades; they went because they didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives. This is because the STEM field isn’t for everyone, but because of Arcadia High School’s fierce STEM culture and minimalistic 1-course arts graduation requirement, many students will take a STEM centered workload and never find a career they are truly passionate about. Arcadia high school needs to change the STEM culture that is hardwired into all of its students and classes. However, because the high school is predominantly Asian, about 70% of the student body, it will be extremely difficult to push the Asian Apache helicopter parents and even student’s peers into accepting art and other non-STEM fields as a viable career choice. Ultimately it will take time as Asians integrate themselves in American culture, and Wesley Yang, a controversial Korean-American writer, focuses on this problem in Asian culture in his essay Paper Tigers. Yang looks at Stuyvesant High School, a competitive public school similar to Arcadia High School in terms of academic achievements and a majority Asian student body. In Asian culture, high school is an exam, best said by an instructor in the essay, “Learning math is not about learning math… you learn quite simply to nail any standardized test you take” (523). You take the rigorous class so that you can pass the AP/SAT test so that you will get into a top 10 university. Unfortunately, this mentality applies to all aspects of high school, best said by my good friend Jackson, “will this be on the AP test?” Asians take rigorous AP classes, such as AP Chemistry, not because they are interested in the subject, but because it looks good to the colleges. Unbeknownst to those students, the credits they used on a relatively meaningless class could have been better purposed to help them find a career to pursue. And in cases such as Arcadia High School, this culture blinds all students who enter the gates, who can go to an arts school, such as Otis, and pursue their dreams in fashion design, or they go to UCSD and become a Bio-Chemist so that their peers don’t mock them. Most students chose the later.
There is also a small, hidden population of students at Arcadia High School who will never get to choose what university they want to go to out of high school. I was one of them. My grades consisted mostly of B’s, which caused my GPA to be approximately 3.00. The problem I faced was that Asian approved colleges want at least a 3.7 GPA, so I simply didn’t apply to the UC system. Instead, I only applied to two colleges, Cal Poly SLO and Long Beach State, and didn’t get into either of them. My grades were a direct result of poor decisions during class time. I never asked questions or did the homework, because homework did not directly benefit our grades, and unfortunately many other students fell into the same trap as I did. In Arcadia High School’s classroom environment, questions are frowned upon even if you don’t understand the lesson; despite whether the teacher didn’t explain a concept well, the Asian culture at the high school would make you, “go home and figure it out.” Likewise, students ask themselves, “why do the homework if there are no immediate benefits?” These core issues at Arcadia High School annually lead a handful of students down a path of diminishing motivation, and many alumni get lost in the Community College system because of their poor work habits.
If Arcadia High School wants to improve its ranking and achieve excellence, it needs to motivate the students with poor grades. Teachers need to take the initiative and talk to the students who are performing poorly, asking question like why they are performing poorly and what can they do to help? My senior english teacher, Mr. Feraco, did this last year because over 50 student, about a ? of all of his classes, were failing senior english and would not graduate; despite many of them having amazing academic track records before hand. Two essays were due every week in that class, and many students gave up because they couldn’t finish the essay the night before. He gave each class a lecture on time management and decided to allow students to make up missing essays for full credit. If Arcadia High School wants to improve its rating, other teachers will need to do the same; they will need to start pushing their students to do well in their classes and sometimes offer their students an olive branch out of their situations. They need to promote an atmosphere that allows questions and discussion about the topic at hand. This will help the students better understand the topic, and will encourage them to do the homework, which will in turn help them to do well on the test.
Similarly, students need to take the initiative and change the classroom environment. When teachers promote classroom participation, students need to take advantage of the opportunity. If they don’t understand any topics at the beginning of class, they need to ask questions immediately. In addition, many students, particularly Asians, will need to express themselves through facial expressions. Yang even touched upon this in his few paragraphs on one of the students, Mao, “[whose] junior advisor would periodically pull take him aside… [and ask] Was something the matter” (525). It’s difficult for a teacher to understand if you’re having a bad day, or even a good day, if your face naturally shows disinterest. While students might feel interested in the topic, the lack of facial expressions discourages the teacher and may cause them to show disinterest in your performance. Students performing poorly will need to start doing the homework, it might not be worth points, but it will reinforce the lecture and thus boost students’ performances in class. Students should try to overcome distractions instead of falling victim to them. If a student needs help understanding the lecture, they should take advantage of the free peer tutoring offered by their brilliant peers. If they have issues at home, students will need to talk to someone in the school’s administration to get through the difficult time.
Likewise, the school’s job is to push students to perform well in class. Many students start ditching class the moment they step foot on campus as a freshmen; they are too young and dumb to realize the impact from missing five to ten+ days of class a semester. The school needs to crackdown on these young students and enforce harsher punishments for ditching class, such as longer detentions after school. They also need to rehabilitate these students through counseling, because punishment without corrections is a positive feedback loop that will encourage students to continue this destructive behavior. This can be done by hiring more counselors to serve the student body and forcing poor performing students to talk to them once or twice a week.
All things considered, Arcadia High School is still slowly climbing the ladder of excellence, but eventually this success will plateau. Arcadia High School should offer its students an academic culture in which not only STEM fields of study are promoted, but also arts and humanities are appreciated. This transition would motivate students who don’t particularly want to pursue a science based career into looking at other career fields. Concurrently this will allow students to take the classes that interest them, and help them decide if that field something they want to pursue. The transition into an art accepting culture will also change the classroom environment into one that allows for questions and discussion. The promotion of arts and a larger quantity of counselors will also keep the students in the classroom, which in turn will help them to succeed. It is Arcadia High School’s responsibility to increase the flexibility of its academic focus so that these three key changes can be instituted and propel the institution from greatness to excellence.