Newsletter: Essential California: College admissions prestige and pressure at Palo Alto High School

Pedestrians cross University Avenue in Palo Alto.
(Noah Berger / For The Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, May 30, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

The details of the college admissions scandal — privilege, power and crushing pressure, writ large — transfixed the nation as the news broke. But at Palo Alto High School, the story was also personal.

Yes, Paly, as it’s known, is the kind of super high-achieving school where the college admissions process can be something of a blood sport. But it went beyond that: The parents of a current Palo Alto student were among those indicted in Operation Varsity Blues.

One other thing to know: For decades, the school’s much-lauded student newspaper has published an annual who’s-going-where college map in its graduation issue. The map, which lists the graduating seniors and their respective schools, is a giant deal in the Paly community. It’s “a symbol of the college-driven culture here at Paly,” according to graduating senior Leyton Ho, one of the five student editors-in-chief of the Campanile newspaper.

But this year, the five editors made the radical decision to not publish the map.


“It’s a decision that we debated heavily for around a month,” said Campanile co-editor and graduating senior Ujwal Srivastava. He explained that though he understood that the map was supposed to be celebratory, he and his fellow editors ultimately believed the purpose it served was a negative one. “It helps fuel this comparison-driven culture about achieving the most elite colleges. It overshadows nontraditional post-high school plans, such as community college,” Srivastava said.

The Campanile itself is far from your average high school newspaper. It’s widely regarded as one of the best student papers in the country, and Esther Wojcicki (mother of Anne and Susan, the CEOs of 23andMe and YouTube, respectively) is its longtime advisor. It’s the kind of place where the governor of California might drop by for a few hours to answer student questions, simply because Wojcicki heard he was in town and asked him to.

“Just to put more of our community in context, I think being across the street from Stanford and in the middle of Silicon Valley, where there are a lot of high-achieving families, parents and students — we put a lot of pressure on ourselves,” Srivastava said. “And there’s pressure from the community to perform.”

“Sometimes students at our school will actually use college acceptance as a metric of success, and that drives a really competitive me-against-you culture at our school,” said Miranda Li, a junior who will serve as a Campanile editor in the coming school year.

(See also: “Palo Alto High students nix map touting college acceptance” in the Mercury News)

Having gone through the college admissions process, Ho said he realized how “tough and toxic” it could be for some students.

But watching the college admissions scandal unfold lent “a sense of urgency” to the situation, according to Srivastava. Seeing it hit so close to home brought up conversations about the culture of the school and what its values should be.

“Why can’t we be the grade that sparks this change? We decided that taking away the map would get the ball rolling and start that conversation,” Srivastava continued.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


The state Assembly passed a police use-of-force bill that could give California one of the toughest standards in the nation, days after changes in the bill won support from law enforcement. But members of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and a Northern California group representing families of victims had pulled their support, saying in part that vague new compromise wording will leave courts to sort out its meaning — requiring a test case that would probably involve a lethal encounter. The bill still needs to pass the state Senate. Los Angeles Times

In a pivotal legal settlement, the city of L.A. agreed that it won’t set a ceiling on the total amount of property that homeless people can keep on skid row. Los Angeles Times

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Recreational cannabis may be legal in California, but hundreds of illegal pot dispensaries still operate in Los Angeles. By mapping the legal and illegal storefronts in the city, James Queally and Ben Welsh found that large swaths of downtown and South L.A. are dominated by black market dispensaries. Los Angeles Times

(Interested in learning more about how the reporters used data to report this story? Check out this Twitter thread from coauthor and Data Desk editor Ben Welsh.)

An ode to L.A.’s gay restaurants, where a community can find a home. Los Angeles Times

Inside the rise and fall of the Hollywood mega-premiere: Movie studios have slowly begun to end the tradition of massive, elaborate premiere parties. Why? The Ringer

(Only semi-related: If you haven’t already stumbled across it, the Movie Premieres Unlimited Twitter account is a strange, nostalgia-laden feed that never fails to delight.)

In other Hollywood news, the Endeavor IPO could affect far more than just agents and add fuel to the industry’s merger mania. The Hollywood Reporter

Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Subscribe to the Los Angeles Times.


A bill making its way through the California Legislature would require Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities to immediately report any in-custody deaths to the state’s attorney general. Pacific Standard


Flanked by much of Fresno’s conservative establishment, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer has officially announced his candidacy for mayor. Dyer’s “One Fresno” campaign slogan is a reference to the idea of there being “two Fresnos,” which we talked a bit about in yesterday’s newsletter. Fresno Bee

School board meetings in the Antelope Valley have turned into must-see theater in recent months amid allegations of state law violations, racism and nepotism. The high desert district of 22,000 students has been roiled by political infighting and protests. Los Angeles Times

An effort to temporarily protect California tenants from steep rent increases cleared a major hurdle in the Legislature after tenant advocates agreed to make changes to significantly weaken the legislation. Los Angeles Times

Oakland has moved a step closer to legalizing magic mushrooms. If the measure to decriminalize certain natural psychedelics is approved, Oakland would become the second city in the country to do so. San Francisco Chronicle


A 12-year-old boy in north Stockton was struck by a bullet inside his home early Tuesday morning, as gunfire flew outside and a round entered the residence. Stockton Record

“Spit hoods” or masks — like the one recently used by the Sacramento police on a 12-year-old boy, as seen in a viral video — are adding fuel to the fire in America’s police brutality debates. MEL Magazine

Ashton Kutcher, left, answers questions from prosecuting attorney Daniel Akemon, right, as he testifies in the murder trial of Michael Gargiulo.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Ashton Kutcher testified Wednesday in the trial of serial killer suspect Michael Gargiulo, also known as the “Hollywood Ripper.” Kutcher was supposed to go on a date with 22-year-old Ashley Ellerin in 2001 on the night she was allegedly killed by Gargiulo. Los Angeles Times


Federal agencies are not performing enough prescribed burns in California and other Western states to curb the risk of wildfire, even as the practice has been adopted more widely by land managers in other regions in the U.S., according to a study. KQED


A San Francisco engineer inadvertently went on a nine-hour psychedelic trip while trying to repair a vintage synthesizer. The synthesizer’s knob was covered in LSD. KPIX 5 San Francisco

As the vaccine debates rage on, attention turns to California’s Waldorf schools. California has more Waldorf schools than any other state, and several of them had among the lowest vaccination rates last year. The Guardian

The Bay Area of 1970 was less racially segregated than it was in 2010, according to a new UC Berkeley paper. San Francisco Chronicle

A Bakersfield Fire Department Museum is in the works, complete with a 1905 horse-drawn fire wagon. Bakersfield Californian

A little humanity on your morning commute: Why Caltrain conductor Lee Guillory is “the one man who can make 64 strangers on 64 smartphones look up.” SF Gate

In Berkeley, Cafe Ohlone is serving only indigenous foods common to the area, pre-colonization. mitú

A gourmet pancake food truck has set up shop in the northern reaches of California, to the delight of Shasta Lake residents. Redding Record Searchlight

Amid much hype, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens at Disneyland this weekend. But the attraction is so ambitious that Disneyland fans may not be ready for it. Los Angeles Times

Plus, Galaxy’s Edge is opening with one ride: “Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run.” Todd Martens takes you inside what it’s like to ride it, and talks with the Disney Imagineers who created it. Los Angeles Times


Los Angeles: partly sunny, 74. San Diego: partly sunny, 70. San Francisco: partly sunny, 60. San Jose: partly sunny, 71. Sacramento: sunny, 81. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from John Saltenberger:

“In 1955, when I was 5 years old, my parents and I, all native San Franciscans, left our hometown for ‘the country,’ Mountain View, in the heart of what was then known as Blossom Valley. (Was silicon even invented in 1955?) Houses were going up everywhere in the midst of demolished apricot, cherry, prune and other fruit tree orchards. As kids, we rode our bikes everywhere, made forts in the still-standing orchards, played in the creeks and went on picnics with our moms during the week in summer because none of them worked and they had the time to take us. We were blessed.”

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.