Exploring the academic culture at UAHS.
BY SAFIA MALHOTRA, ’24; SOPHIA HUDSON, ’22; AND JAMES UNDERWOOD, ’23. PHOTOS BY BELLA VANMETER, ’22. GRAPHICS BY DAPHNE BONILLA, ’22 AND LUCY O’BRIEN, ’22.
School board elections are not known for attracting heavy public attention. However, this has changed during this year’s election season when school boards across the country saw strife and divide across various issues like masking, vaccines and approaches to teaching racial issues. While some of these issues appeared in Upper Arlington’s election, a bigger emphasis was placed on UA’s academic performance.
Academics became a decisive and divisive topic in UA’s school board election and galvanized many voters while drawing the attention of some candidates. In a race of five candidates vying for two seats, Lou Sauter campaigned on a platform of returning UA to “academic excellence”; likewise, candidate Liz Easton wanted to make UA the “gold standard of academics, athletics and activities.”
The dominance of this topic in the election, alongside the desire for UA to excel in its academics, speaks to community members’ differing expectations of UA’s schools and raises greater questions about UA’s academic culture.
BECOMING THE BEST
During the campaign season, Sauter released a multi-step plan to improve the district’s academic standing compared to other districts throughout the state.
His plan includes creating a task force “with the sole goal of making Upper Arlington Schools the number one school district in the state academically by the year 2027,” according to Sauter’s website.
As one step in this process, Sauter, who won one of the two open seats, wants the district to make use of an independent consulting firm for the purpose of investigating any academic decline of the schools and identifying solutions.
“We’ve got to bring in some outside people to evaluate what’s going on here and where we have some holes,” Sauter said. “Typically, in any type of company that’s having issues, they’ll bring people in from the outside. Outside eyes look at things a little bit differently, and they might be able to point you in a direction you need to improve on. And hopefully that’s what we do.”
Sauter said that at the same time, UA should review what high-performing districts are doing and incorporate their practices.
“We should go and visit some of the schools that are constantly ranked in the top,” he said. “We should go there and see what they’re doing, what they’re focusing on.”
Whether UA is the “number one school district in the state academically” or not hinges on how it performs in academic rankings.
The Ohio Department of Education ranks districts on a variety of metrics and compiles these rankings into a yearly report card that grades schools and districts on their performance. This report card draws from six major components: progress, gap closing, improving at-risk K-3 readers, graduation rate, preparedness for success and achievement.
This last benchmark, achievement, makes up 20% of a district’s overall grade and is itself based mostly on the “performance index” which is calculated on how students do on end-of-year state tests. This performance index is what many community members focused on during the election. Sauter’s campaign, for example, mailed voters a flyer displaying a chart of UA’s performance index rankings across time.
Beyond Sauter, this renewed attention to rankings has also come from the UA Education Coalition. The group, whose self-described mission is “to advocate for educational excellence in the Upper Arlington Schools,” monitors and reports on UA’s academic performance. The group was started last year to advocate a return to in-person schooling. Cathy Pultz is the current president of the group.
“Upper Arlington has excellent teachers, but the district needs to determine why our rankings have gone down so much,” Pultz said.
Pultz thinks that UA’s drop in rankings reflects a problem within the district as a whole.
“I do think rankings matter. When you go from 24th to 67th, that’s a red flag that something’s not up; something’s not right,” she said.
Pultz said that higher rankings would also attract more prospective families to UA.
“If you see a school district that’s maintained itself in the top 10 for 10 years, you’re going to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to go look over there,’ as opposed to a school district [where] the rankings are going down,” Pultz said.
Some in the community have emphasized that rankings should be considered within a broader context.
Nidhi Satiani, who was elected to the school board alongside Sauter during the recent election, said that academic rankings are being made out to be a bigger issue than they actually are.
“I feel like the numbers were cherry picked for political reasons, instead of it being an actual assessment of how our schools are doing or talking about how our schools are doing,” she said.
Satiani supports a bigger-picture outlook on evaluating district performance.
“I don’t think a single number defines the health of the school district,” she said. “You need to look at it holistically.”
Satiani said that during the campaign season she spoke with families about rankings and why there was concern.
“So for families who are saying our rankings need to be the number one thing that we’re focusing on, I would love to talk more about why,” she said. “And that is one of the things that I was asking while I was campaigning. The reasons that popped up that I was hearing was one, there was a concern that we’re failing our students.”
Satiani said that the focus of the school board should be on these underlying concerns and not the rankings themselves. She said another concern she had heard was home values.
“If the underlying concern is home values—which is another reason that came up when I was talking to people about ‘What is it about rankings that really concerns you?’—then let’s talk about home values,” she said. “Our home values are doing just fine. But if there’s this fear of the future, then let’s talk about what are ways that we can support realtors. What are the ways that we can support people who are selling their homes to really showcase the strength of Upper Arlington Schools? Let’s make sure that they have the information to know that our students really are doing just fine.”
Satiani said that this focus on rankings might not prepare students best.
“Really just chasing after a number is not necessarily, I think, good teaching, and it doesn’t better prepare our students for life outside of high school.”
Still, Satiani said she sees some value in rankings.
“It’s a data point that you can use,” she said. “It’s something that you have to look at; you can’t ignore it. It’s important for a lot of other reasons, but it shouldn’t be the only piece of information that drives decision making.”
EARNING A GRADE
While UA’s rankings within the state of Ohio have drawn the focus of many community members, most students worry more about their academic performance as measured by grades. In August, students found an unexpected change to how they saw their grades: students could no longer see their GPAs in PowerSchool.
The goal of this change, which was suggested to the UAHS administration by the counseling center, was to alleviate the stress caused by instant access to GPAs for students. However, some students, like junior Kajul Hari, found themselves and others more stressed due to this change.
“That kind of got me stressed because you’re thinking about your cumulative GPA for college and just knowing like, ‘Oh, do I have a 3.5?’ or, ‘Oh, do I have a 4.0?’” she said.
Junior Luke Rockey expressed that he too preferred being able to see his GPA.
“I actually didn’t like it because I felt like your GPA was a really, really good benchmark to see how you were doing in school,” Rockey said.
However, Rockey did say that while he liked being able to see his GPA, it didn’t necessarily help with stress.
“I like having [my GPA] there, but I’m definitely more stressed,” he said.
This change also drew the attention of the senior class officers, who in meetings with Principal Andrew Theado advocated that it be reversed. The officers held that despite its initial purpose, the move had backfired and made students more worried about their grades.
“The [class officers’] pretty much unanimous response was, ‘Well, we’re actually kind of more stressed not seeing it because we’re so used to having it available,’” senior class president Nathan Varda said.
Having grown accustomed to being able to see their GPAs and grades, Varda said, students reacted negatively to being in the dark.
“We agreed that while, for example, if we had never had access to it, that might be better, but now that we have had access to it in the past, for a lot of people, it’s going to be much worse and more stressful if we can’t see it now,” he said.
In response to the class officers’ input, Theado began the process of bringing GPAs back as an option for students.
“We tried to get it [back] on as quick as we could,” Theado said.
Varda said that the administration was receptive to the officers’ input.
“[Mr. Theado] was basically like, ‘Okay, I understand your perspectives.’ And I think because it was a unanimous agreement, it struck him especially,” Varda said. “I would say this is one of the cases where they’ve been most responsive,” Varda said.
While students can see their GPAs once again, student reaction to GPAs being hidden reflects, in part, the overall mentality toward grades within UAHS.
“I feel like there’s huge expectations, not even from teachers but kind of from the general environment of the school and Upper Arlington High School, that you have to be perfect, have to be top of the class, you have to take honors, AP, IB, etc.,” Rockey said.
Rockey said that the emphasis on grades isn’t balanced throughout students’ academic careers.
“They really don’t tell you how much grades matter as you’re going through school. Like in middle school I put a bunch of pressure on myself, but it doesn’t matter at all. And then high school I’m like ‘Oh shoot, this quarter is going to affect the next like 18 years of my life,’” he said. “It definitely makes it a lot more intense, especially as you get into sophomore year or junior year because there’s no safety net of time.”
This imbalance can also lead to students taking on overlapping academic commitments that interfere with each other.
“I was going to really, really prepare myself for the SATs, and then school got in the way,” Rockey said. “It is interesting; schoolwork definitely gets in the way of schoolwork.”
These time conflicts and other factors can sometimes lead to a mismatch between grades and learning, according to some students. When this mismatch does occur, UA’s academic culture can mean that some students prioritize getting a desirable grade over learning the course material. This becomes especially pertinent with studying for tests.
“For a lot of people, especially for myself, when it comes to crunch time and you’ve got like three tests in a week, it becomes cram and forget, cram and forget, cram and forget,” Rocky said. “You don’t actually learn the content; you just memorize it for a little bit and forget it after the test.”
As such, Theado, emphasizing that his opinion was his own, said his “philosophy [is] that the grade is as closely associated to learning as possible.”
When grading and learning do diverge, counselor Amy Aspengren said that the latter should be prioritized.
“If you focus on the points, you’re missing the whole point,” she said.
Still, prioritizing learning over grades can put some students at a disadvantage, Varda said.
“It’s a system where if you care for learning, and you don’t necessarily care about grades, you’re probably going to get left behind,” he said.
Many teachers have acknowledged this and are beginning to look into new teaching methods in order to be as effective as possible in the classroom and beyond.
For example, Theado himself has taken this approach in the leadership workshop class he co-teaches with Research and Design Lab Leader Laura Moore.
“We’re not giving a bunch of points or anything,” he said. “It’s really about, are they showing growth in approaching those learning goals?”
These new ways to grade student performance come alongside the shifting landscape of high school education.
For example, as the economy becomes more and more knowledge-based, the skills required of students have shifted too. According to Education Week, a newspaper covering, these skills include “collaboration, digital literacy, critical thinking, and problem-solving.”
Aspengren said that these changes affect what students need to know in the 21st century.
“The process of learning is the key,” she said. “Because you all carry a computer with you 24/7, you don’t need to necessarily memorize and do all that kind of stuff. You need to enjoy learning; you need to know how to learn; you need to find reliable sources for learning. That’s what you guys really, really, really need.”
The most important part about school, Sauter said, is “learning how to work hard and challenge yourself and learning how to learn and think independently.”
Theado said that this can also mean that learning can extend beyond the four walls of the classroom.
“High school should be a time where you’re connecting what you’re doing in the classroom to real life experience,” he said.
GOING TO COLLEGE
Many students’ desire for good grades comes from the prospect of applying to college, another major aspect of the broader academic culture at UAHS.
For many students, the pressure to get into college begins at a young age.
“My whole past like seven years have just been leading up to college,” Hari said.
Rockey, as well, has already begun the college admission process while only a junior.
“I’ve done a little bit of research on schools; I’m planning to visit some schools in winter, and I’m just kind of keeping track of emails and letters and stuff like that,” he said.
The pressure to be accepted into a “desirable” college can also affect what classes students take in the first place or what they participate in outside the classroom. Some students carefully curate their extracurricular activities—from clubs to sports to committees—in the hopes that colleges will admit them.
Senior Sam Ozello has observed this as president of Model UN.
“I’ve had several people join it purely for college admissions or so they can put it on a resume or something,” he said. “And I know a lot of people who do sports or other clubs just for that reason.”
Hari has noticed this as well.
“People aren’t passionate about some stuff, but I see them doing it,” she said. “Like, some people start certain clubs just to make it an extra space on [their applications].”
This may be partially due to the fact that there has also been, in recent years, a rise in schools going test-optional, meaning students do not have to submit their scores on standardized tests like the ACT and SAT. Some colleges have even shifted to a test-blind approach, meaning they do not look at test scores at all.
This shift has been taking place for years, but the trend has rapidly accelerated since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when students couldn’t take in-person tests.
“It really changed the way we see the admission process,” UAHS college counselor Kathy Moore said.
Moore said that these changes affect how students might look at applying to college and where their priorities lie.
“I feel like [a test score] just doesn’t matter as much as it used to,” Moore said. “I think that yes, it is important to do well of course. But also know that things are changing and test scores aren’t the only measure of intelligence.”
Moore said she has seen a similar shift in colleges’ view of GPAs.
“I do think that [GPAs] are important to keep in mind, but also know that admissions are constantly changing, and it does seem like we are shying away from test scores and that emphasis on GPA only,” she said.
The stress of college admissions is further complicated by some students’ desire to attend top, highly selective schools.
“That kind of leads up to people thinking there’s just good schools instead of what we try to emphasize, which is good fit,” Aspengren said. “That’s much more important than that ‘good school.’”
LEARNING A TRADE
This idea of a good fit also applies to whether students go to college in the first place. Some students within the UA community have questioned whether or not college is the path for them. Still, a majority of students in the class of 2020—92%—went on to a two- or four-year college, according to figures published in the district’s 2021 quality profile.
This widespread culture of attending college is reflected in students’ experiences.
“Whenever you hear someone is like, ‘No, I’m thinking about trade school,’ it’s just absolutely unheard of,” Ozello said.
Rockey, likewise, said that these norms can start early.
“I feel like there’s a huge expectation that, from a very young and sometimes immature age, we know exactly where we’re going to go, exactly what we’re going to do,” Rocky said.
Counselor Liz Hughes said that these expectations should not apply to all students.
“[College admissions] places this expectation that you have to go to college if you’re here,” Hughes said. “And that is not the case, but I think a lot of people think that.”
“I think it’s important for students to understand that if college isn’t for them, than that’s okay,” she said. “There are lots of other options out there for students, whether they want to go to a trade school or into the military or do a gap year, and when you’re passionate about something, that’s what’s going to make you successful.”
Many of those options, Hughes said, have strong career prospects for interested students.
“There are great programs at Fort Hayes and downtown Career Center for juniors and seniors to attend. There are tons of different associate degree programs,” Hughes said. “There’s a shortage of tons and tons of workers in high need fields that don’t require a career or college degree.”
For those students who don’t plan to attend college, Satiani said she would like to see additional pathways opened up for UA students after graduation and existing ones strengthened.
“We can have our strong college prep curriculum, but we are also serving the students who will go into work, go into military, go into service after high school,” she said.
Aspengren said she has already seen students beginning to look into alternative post-high school paths.
“I think on a good note, students are rethinking it more these days: ‘What is a college degree? What does that mean for what I want?’ And I think that’s good.”
PRESSURED & STRESSED
Whether or not students plan to attend college, UA’s focus on academics can worsen some students’ mental health or leave them feeling too stressed.
In a survey conducted by the American Health Association, over 87% of students surveyed reported that “school was overwhelming.” In addition to this, over 85% also stated that they felt emotionally exhausted due to the pressure regarding their academics.
“While my life isn’t centered around school, it definitely has a huge impact on my mental health,” Rockey said.
For Rockey, part of this comes from the expectations placed on students by the school itself.
“It’s almost like exceeding expectations is the expectation,” Rockey said. “You take a huge hit when you don’t get a very good grade, but when you do actually get good grades it’s kind of like, ‘Okay, I’m meeting expectations.’”
This pressure to excel can also come from many other sources, from familial expectations to self-imposed motivation to succeed in the academic arena.
For Hari, who is taking five AP classes, some of this pressure comes from her family
“My brothers did really well on the ACT, so my parents are expecting the same result,” she said. “They did really well with handling four, five, six AP classes at a time. So they think that’ll be the same for me.”
This pressure can likewise come from students comparing themselves to each other.
“I think there’s a lot of comparison, whether that’s comparison between friends and friend groups, whether that’s comparison between siblings,” Hughes said. “And so our focus is really on, this is your individual journey. What are your goals? Where do you want to go after here? And how can we help you get there? And what are you doing now to help you get there? That focus is super important.”
This tendency of students to compare themselves was previously embedded within the very academic system at UA. While UAHS is today a “non-ranking” school, students in UAHS were told how their GPA ranked within their grade level prior to 2006.
“We’re a non-ranking school, which I like because we’re so competitive already,” Hughes said.
For many UAHS students juggling after-school jobs, sports, social activities and studying, the line between school life and home life has blurred over time, causing increased stress in students’ lives.
According to a recent report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, research shows that one in three high school students have struggled with feelings of both sadness and hopelessness in the 2020 school year, a 40% increase in the past decade.
Given this rise, many students need a sense of balance or a means of separation between the school day and their home life. The typical high school student spends approximately 2.7 hours doing homework each night, according to a recent report from The Washington Post.
As such, the UAHS counseling center has worked to improve balance within the student body.
“That is something that we really, really stress: balance is so important,” Hughes said.
Regarding this balance, Sauter said that academics and mental health can complement each other and that the latter can be improved alongside the former.
“If you handicap a child academically at a young age, they will feel that forever, and it leads to increased anxiety and depression as they get older,” he said.
This connection between grades and mental health, Satiani said, is strong.
“Grades and mental health are very integrally related,” she said. “The answer is definitely not a greater focus on numbers and achievement because that increase in focus completely ignores the mental health piece of it. Healthier students do better academically. It doesn’t mean that we push our students into courses just for grades, just for numbers. It’s the exact opposite: it’s supporting our students so that they are ready to learn in the classroom.”
Attaining this sense of balance can be difficult for some students, including Hari.
“I try to be really efficient, but sometimes it’s just like, I’ll forget something. So I try to be really organized, but I don’t know, sometimes that’s hard.”
Rockey, who alongside his academic commitments is the head drum major of the marching band as well as a student athlete and honors student, likewise finds this balance elusive. Asked how he maintains balance, he said, “In short, I don’t. The long answer is [that] I use the Calendar app to try and sort things out. That works the best.”
Moore agreed that this balance can be difficult for some students.
“There are students who, for sure, are very affected by school and stress,” Moore said. “I do not think this is true for all students. There are definitely those who have some healthy boundaries and are able to balance it all, but I know it’s hard.”
Satiani said that balance can also be accomplished through making sure that students are not overstretched.
“And then also at the high school level, it’s conversations with counselors making sure that students aren’t taking five AP classes, because that’s ridiculous,” she said. “That’s too much in order to really just have a healthy balance in life.”
But while students may overexert themselves to get into college, Varda said, that isn’t without reason. For many students, the stress they undergo might be prerequisite to achieving their goals such as gaining admission to a particular college.
“I think all these anxieties—while I think they’re bad—they’re all valid,” Varda said. “I think that’s where the problem lies: not that people are stressing over stuff they don’t need to, but they’re stressing over stuff that they shouldn’t need to.”