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Being a Successful Student Today Is All Work and No Play

James M. Leavy is assistant editor of the Southeast/Long Beach sections. His column will appear occasionally.

Painter Norman Rockwell, a careful observer of youngsters and dogs, had an endearing way of telling readers of the Saturday Evening Post that school was out. He painted youngsters heading for the swimming hole or fishing pond at breakneck speed, propelled from their classrooms, it would seem, by a sudden release of tension. And, of course, the pups were there, racing with tongues out, eyes wide and ears blown back.

These magazine covers have become bits of Americana. They are records of life as it was lived in the first half of the century or, perhaps, idealized versions of life as Rockwell saw it.

It would be difficult to find the models for such a painting in these days of year-round schedules. But even in districts that have remained on a traditional schedule, many students have plunged into summer school, and the traditional three-month summer vacation we once knew and loved no longer exists. At Cerritos High School, for example, nearly 65% of the students are volunteering to take heavy-duty English, math, science and language classes. About half of them are preparing for proficiency examinations, and half are in enrichment programs aimed at moving their academic careers along more quickly.

There may be pressure from parents, but some students deny it, claiming they are eager to improve their grades, increase their chances of success in college and get an edge in the competition for jobs.

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Latasha Stringer, 15, spends four hours a day in classes, taking geometry and Spanish in an enrichment program. She wants to be an obstetrician and gynecologist.

Scott Griggs, 17, is reviewing geometry for his college entrance exams.

John Yang, 13, is a freshman going to summer school to brush up on his English. He wants to be an engineer.

David Howard, 16, is heading for a junior college. He is studying English in summer school and wants to become an orthodontist.

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They are among 1,360 Cerritos High School students who have traded the beaches and tennis courts for more time in the classroom and intensive summer studies.

This is every teacher’s dream class. There are so many students eager for learning that going to summer school has achieved the same status as wearing the right brand of sneakers or driving this season’s acceptable vehicle.

Cerritos High School Principal Gary Smuts has mixed feelings.

He speaks with pride and enthusiasm about his students. Nearly three-quarters of them are members of minority groups. Many come from homes where English is not the first language and yet they earn amazingly high grade-point averages. In recent testing, 87% of his students passed English composition and 90% passed physics in advance placement examinations.

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But there is a price to pay for all of this excellence. Stress, created by the pressure to achieve, is having an impact on the mental health of some students, Smuts said. “We have to be careful about the pressure we put on young people today,” he said.

He is worried about the increasing number of youngsters who are depressed to the point where they contemplate suicide. He ranks the problem up there with gang membership, drug and alcohol use and sexual activity among students.

“They are all symptoms of the same thing,” Smuts said. Society is putting undue stress on students to achieve, and school officials are responding by keeping a watch on student behavior, particularly among those who appear to be reaching their limits academically.

When the signs of depression appear, advisers and parents meet to determine what needs to be done to protect a student’s mental health, Smuts said.

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There have been no suicides, according to Smuts, just some youngsters depressed enough to talk about it.

Tom Brock, a family therapist in private practice, treats young people from schools in the Southeast and Long Beach area. “There are more and more kids thinking about death and suicide and showing other signs of depression.”

He cites pressure to succeed. Students have unlimited choices, which must be reduced to a manageable number, Brock said.

Budget cuts have deprived some schools of extracurricular activities, eliminating things such as tennis clubs or chess clubs that provided outlets for some of the emotional turmoil that comes with being a teen-ager.

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Brock blames an absence of values and direction for young people. They have great voids in their lives. Who are their adult friends, he asks? Where are the aunts, uncles, neighbors and others to fill the gap between a youngster’s peers and those in authority such as parents and teachers?

Rockwell understood this special relationship with adults. He painted an old man teaching a youngster how to fish, a doctor treating a little girl’s doll, grandpa playing baseball with young men.

But that was a different day.

Now “school’s out,” but the water hole is polluted, the dog is on a leash and the once carefree students are in summer school or in therapy trying to cope with stress.

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