Lakeside Academics: Laborious or Lacking?

When new students are accepted into Lakeside Upper School, the first item they receive is the Student Handbook. The small minority of students who actually read it might notice that it states, “Students should be ready for a rigorous academic program. They should expect 2-3 hours of homework per night if they are taking five academic classes.” This is the “academic standard” expected in all Lakeside classes by students. However, it varies wildly depending on which classes a given student is taking, making the academic rigor of classes highly dependent on course selection. 

As for homework, one student interviewed said they “usually have four hours of homework,” while another said they “have no more than twenty to thirty minutes”. This problem has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which most Lakeside classes reduced homework loads by 60-80%, according to Head of School Bernie Noe. Some classes have recovered to pre-pandemic homework loads while others have retained low amounts of homework.

Additionally, Lakeside’s lack of honors humanities classes, academic clubs’ inability to participate in competitions on a wide scale, and the seeming lack of STEM electives as compared to humanities electives have contributed to notions of Lakeside academics not being all that it’s cracked up to be.

All of these taken in effect have begun to inspire debate in the minds of school administrators and parents about the rigor of the Lakeside academic system. Many argue that it’s not rigorous enough, but others argue it’s too rigorous. 

The latter group argues that less is more, and Lakeside’s focus on other areas of life than academics is important because most students will not need to know how to take a surface integral of an arbitrary figure or the date that Bacon’s Rebellion took place in Virginia. Rather, they should (and are) encouraged to focus on “competencies and mindsets” which, in their most basic sense, focus on how Lakeside students think and approach problems rather than the sheer amount of facts they know.

But this ‘academic standard’ varies wildly depending on which classes a given student is taking.”

However, this approach has made some parents and guardians wonder if Lakeside is losing its academic edge over other schools, particularly in the Seattle area, which has seen an explosion of schools offering advanced courses and electives to their students. Interestingly, most adults who fall into this camp also endorse competencies and mindsets as an educational tool, but they, for the most part, believe that there should be rigorous and more advanced academic electives and honors classes for students — including underclassmen — to take (for example, a math course on tensor calculus). 

Initially, to get a hold of the conundrums Lakeside’s academics face, Tatler interviewed two students — one freshman and one sophomore — on academics at Lakeside. Their thoughts varied drastically, with the freshman interviewee saying that “Lakeside is as difficult as expected” and that they have “lots of homework on some days and almost nothing on others.” Because of this, their primary complaint was that homework piles up on certain days because of the lack of communication between departments. However, they also emphasized that more advanced courses were not necessary at Lakeside because the current courses “are challenging and already take enough time as a whole.” The interviewee also mentioned their concern that more advanced courses would allow some students to stand out from the rest. While they painted this point in a negative light, a different interviewee (distinct from the freshman and sophomore) pointed out that this “can also be seen as a positive. In sports, we have different teams for people of different skill levels, so why doesn’t this apply to academics?”

Meanwhile, the sophomore said they would like more advanced classes, particularly in STEM, like a quantum mechanics course (which is coming next year!). However, they also acknowledged  that “there’s probably not a lot of people who are able to teach such advanced classes,” and that if there are, students could pursue an independent study instead. 

With these opinions in mind, Tatler interviewed Bernie Noe in order to get a better understanding of the past, present, and future of Lakeside academics:

 

Rohan D: When you first came to Lakeside in 1999, what were your priorities when it came to academics?

Bernie Noe: To make sure that the quality of academics remained the same: at a high level. 

 

RD: How have academics changed since you first came here?

BN: It’s a hard question to answer, because I’m sure I don’t have my finger on the pulse of every department, but at one point, about 10 years ago, we decided our academics was just too intense, so we decided to ask the teachers to reduce the workload by about 15% at the time, and I think that people did do that. 

 

RD: Why are there significantly more humanities electives than STEM electives? Is this something Lakeside is looking at changing?

BN: I’m not aware of any move to change that, and electives are principally driven by what teachers want to offer, but I don’t know whether there’s fewer courses proposed. But anyone can propose an elective, and if it gets approved, it becomes part of the curriculum. 

 

RD: How did the pandemic affect grades at Lakeside? 

BN: The pandemic had the effect of significantly inflating grades, and grades have, this year, returned to almost but not entirely pre-pandemic grading levels. The number of As given during the pandemic went up 17% and returned to within 4% higher than what they had been prior.

 

RD: Is the administration aware that homework loads vary wildly depending on classes?

BN: I have heard that from time to time from students, but it has not been a major comment people have made.

 

RD: Would you say independent studies take care of the lack of electives in some departments? What is the impact of taking independent studies vs. classes?

BN: Independent studies should not be replacing high-level classes in any department. Typically, independent studies have been used when one student has a specific interest. For example, if there’s a specific math course that one student wants to take, we would have an independent study because 10 to 15 other students wouldn’t want to take the same math course.

 

RD: Will Lakeside’s new focus on competencies and mindsets change the grading or homework loads of any classes?

BN: The shift to competencies and mindsets skills shouldn’t result in significant changes to the way grading happens or in the student workloads of any department.

 

This interview has been edited for clarity.