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Candid student editor assesses her high school

High school doesn't just ''happen'' to student journalists. Working on the school paper or yearbook gives them experience in evaluating, as well as reporting, what they see.

For example, Susan Freiwald, last year's editor of one of the most highly esteemed high school newspapers in the country, wrote in an editorial: ''High School is like a set of headphones. Although at times the music it plays is constructive or educational, it provides a shelter, and, therefore, isolation. In the same way that a person with headphones on cannot talk with others, a high school student cuts himself off from new ideas and listens only to familiar sounds.''

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Susan was interviewed last spring on her perception of high school life, and specifically on how she came to think of headphones as a metaphor for high school.

''One afternoon,'' she replied, ''I was walking down the hall, and here all these kids were sitting in the hall next to each other, not talking to each other, shutting each other out, listening to music on their Walkmans'' (a brand name for one of the more popular portable cassette players).

Susan is particularly concerned, not simply because she identifies with her fellow students at Lowell High School, but more significantly because the school's 2,875 students represent San Francisco's creme de la cremem . Known as ''the academic high school'' in San Francisco, Lowell attracts gifted, college-bound, public high school students and was recently selected by Money magazine as ''one of the 12 best in the nation.''

In Susan's editorial one also reads: ''. . . when the most devastating storm in decades hits the northern California coast, takes lives, wreaks millions of dollars in damage . . . most of us think of it only in terms of how many commuting teachers the storm has stranded on the other side of the bay.''

Maybe that is an exaggeration, Susan conceded, yet later in the interview she claimed that self-centeredness is increased at schools like Lowell by the extreme competitiveness of the student body.

For several generations, competition at Lowell has been seen in terms of ethnicity. Lowell's enrollment is now almost 65 percent Asian, which is about three times as great as the Asian constituency of the San Francisco community at large.

''For a lot of other kids,'' Susan emphasized, ''they feel that in the backs of their minds they can always fall back on their families if somehow they don't make it. But for a lot of the Asians, it's the other way around; it's the families that are counting on the children. So the kids feel they have got to make it.''

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And ''making it'' ultimately means getting into the nearby Berkeley campus of the University of California -- or other top-flight colleges and universities around the country. About 99 percent of Lowell's graduates go to college, as opposed to 61.5 percent statewide. Susan, for example, has been accepted for fall admission at Brown University. Her brother, also a former editor of Lowell's paper, attends Columbia.

One reads in the Lowell newspaper that academic competitiveness is responsible, in part, for the high incidence of cheating that apparently goes on at the school.

The paper, the ''Red & White,'' gave full-page publication of a survey showing that 77.5 percent of the students had ''cheated on a test while at Lowell.''

Student comments explained why cheating was so prevalent in terms of the desire to get into a good college or university. As one said, ''Cheating is a victimless crime. Why not do everything possible to tip the scales in your favor?''

The student survey further stated that ''given a chance to cheat, 68 percent would think twice about it, and would cheat depending on the circumstances.''

Susan said cheating could be minimized if, in English and social studies classes, for example, teachers gave more essay tests, and if in other courses, tests were varied somewhat from class to class. This would impede the efficiency of hallway grapevines, she said, with students asking one another, ''What was on the test? What was on the test?''

Alluding to teacher indifference or naivete, Susan cited a language test in which students took their cue from a student ''leader,'' who nodded his head to test questions: ''Once for true,'' Susan said, ''twice for false.''

Despite the apparent controversial nature of such articles as the cheating piece, she maintains that such stories have raised hardly any flap and have actually been well received. She says student self-censorship is responsible for the low level of controversy in newspaper articles.

''When I was editor,'' she said, ''I told the staff to try to do more investigative journalism. But they were scared. Students are afraid to write anything negative about the administration, about the school district, about their teachers or even other students. . . . But what have they got to be scared of?'' she asks rhetorically.

Even a cursory reading of the paper, however, would inform the first-time reader that here was a school that emphasized academic success. A three-column story from one of last year's issues was headlined: ''Teachers' Fears Worsen After AP Cut.''

At other high schools, AP would have been spelled out: advanced placement. Even the story itself took for granted that all readers would know that such courses are college-level, the successful completion of which could result in college credit as well.

Susan Freiwald indicated that the term ''AP,'' in a way, is also a metaphor for the school, just as are the portable cassette players. She says she heard a math teacher once brag that his AP class had earned a 4.7 average, which is just shy of the top grade of 5. Susan admits that the 4.7 is commendable. ''But his concern was for the test score, rather than for the course itself,'' she said.

She believes this narrow kind of academic approach produces a kind of tunnel vision, which again is related to what she wrote about in her editorial on the insularity of the student body.

''I have no way of really knowing,'' she said, ''but I doubt if most of the kids here would know who was the secretary of state. One of Lowell's newspaper sections is devoted to politics, but I think hardly anybody reads it.

''Kids here don't really know what's going on. Civics covers current events, but that's not taken until you're a senior, and by then it's a little late.''

She did say, however, that the civics class has an out-of-the-classroom component in which credit is given for being involved in career-mentoring or similar activities.

Susan has a couple of suggestions for making young people more aware. She said Lowell might emulate a local independent school that has compulsory assemblies in which students are regularly given the chance to hear distinguished political and social leaders.

She also thinks that more teachers could help establish clubs or groups that are geared toward social or political action. Citing the low level of present student interest in areas of public concern, she said a draft counselor recently visited this campus of nearly 3,000 students ''and only about 15 or 20 kids showed up, and most of these were girls. And the draft is something that could concern everybody.''

Susan stoutly maintains that one of the main reasons that her own consciousness has been raised is her three-year association with the school paper.

''I learned about language from the practical standpoint,'' she said. ''It got so I hated seeing the passive voice; it's so weak. And I got very picky with word choice; I would say to a reporter with his copy: 'Look, this verb doesn't go with this object. This is not what you really want to say.' ''

Pausing to shift gears, she continued: ''Turning an assignment in to a teacher is one thing; putting an article in the paper that you yourself edit is something else.''

Susan claims that this assertiveness is something that blossomed through working on the paper. ''Actually, I used to be shy; but when I was made editor, I knew I would have to lead, but I wanted to do it without demanding.'' Admittedly, pinpointing the reasons for effective leadership is tricky.

''I think it worked because I was really serious, and this was conveyed to the staff.

''One day I came into the journalism room to pick up my messages, and I discovered that on all the envelopes had been pasted headline letters indicating reporters' nicknames. On my envelope the letters spelled 'MOM.' Kids also called me 'Chief.' '' Susan then said with a self-deprecating laugh: ''Or, at times, 'Lou Grant.' ''

The editorship was the most exhilarating educational experience Susan has had since she's been at Lowell. ''It forced me to get out of myself and observe a little bit,'' she said.

When asked: If the average classroom learning experience was worth a 7, then on a scale of 1 to 10 where did editing the paper fit in?

She reacted matter-of-factly, unequivocally, and quietly: ''10.''

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