The high school musical that predicted the admissions scandal

The high school musical that predicted the admissions scandal

How two high school teachers wrote a musical about the admissions scandal before it even happened

Article by Michael Mander
Images by Yarcenia Garcia

3 November 2020

“High school academics are a game that the players must learn to beat in order to climb the leaderboards of class rank.”

Jonathan Chu graduated high school in 2016 as Valedictorian – and gave a speech that went viral on YouTube.

In it, he lambasted the state of education – and the ‘game’ that high schoolers are forced to play to earn their place at college.

“The system, imposed upon us by tradition, has separated true education from academic achievement.”

When David Taylor Gomes and Kyle Holmes asked their theatre students about the top concerns they faced in high school and in life, the fight to get into college and the ‘game’ of GPA point-scoring was high up the list for many of them.

“David and I had worked together for about seven years, and we’d seen a lot of our students be really successful with college admissions and we’d seen a lot of them really struggle. But more importantly, I think we had seen the toll that that process took on them throughout the school year,” said Kyle.

And so, they wrote and produced Ranked – a musical telling the story of high school students obsessed with their grades and class ranking, and the impact it can have on their future. The show’s tag line sums it: “pain is temporary, grades last forever”.

At the end of Act 1, the twist is revealed: one of the student’s parents has been secretly paying to inflate their child’s grade.

“When we first suggested that idea we actually got a lot of pushback on it,” said Kyle, “people thought it was so unrealistic: how would he not know what his parents were doing? And we’re sitting there thinking, school is a lot harder than you remember.”

But, of course, David and Kyle were vindicated by the college admissions scandal – that broke out just before performances were due to begin.

Eye on the prize

“If we accept that people are actually going to do whatever it takes then we need to accept that this is what people are doing,” said David, “the timing was crazy and it really propelled us in an interesting way.”

Just three weeks before the first performance of Ranked, it emerged that dozens of families had paid huge sums for their children to access elite schools. High profile figures such as actress Lori Loughlin and fashion designer J. Mossimo Giannulli were implicated in the scandal, along with over 50 others who spent more than $25 million.

The show saw national media attention, NPR called it the “Dystopian High School Musical” that “Foresaw The College Admissions Scandal”.

David and Kyle weren’t surprised when the scandal broke out. They wrote on the show’s website: “we weren’t shocked that it happened. We were shocked that it happened right now.”

All the evidence was there, said David.

The Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal from 2009, that saw 11 teachers convicted after cheating on standardized tests, served as inspiration.

So, too, did a raft of scandals at D.C. schools where student achievement was artificially inflated to meet demanding targets.

“If this is what’s happening on a large scale,” said David, “we wondered what must be happening in individual houses.”

Being borne out of conversations with their students, the musical reflected the real life that young people were experiencing on their journey to college. But there were countless issues that couldn’t be squeezed into the show: the impact the college search has on student mental health, the world of college sports, and rampant drug misuse.

“Adderall and Ritalin are a huge part of college prep culture: the kids are either getting fake prescriptions or buying it from people with prescriptions. They go take their Adderall before they take their SATs, so they can focus and do better,” said Kyle.

David and Kyle wanted a show that talked about the culture that created those issues, rather than a show about the issues themselves: “We wanted to talk about the environment that creates the emotional and mental hurdles that facilitate those really terrible scenarios,” Kyle explained.

Global Perspectives - Admissions Scandal Musical Ranked

The reaction

The very first performance of the show was a closed one, for the families of the performers.

But the reaction was muted: “there were a lot of moments that we thought were going to get a laugh that got crickets and there were even songs that got no applause,” said David, “and that really made us panic.”

But, as it turned out, it was the stark reality of their students’ life that left parents in a stunned silence. “It was really overwhelming for them,” said David, “and the ensemble were using their own names – which didn’t help.”

The following night when the show was performed for a room full of students the reaction was the polar opposite – the story hit home for students in the audience, who were under the same pressures as the show’s protagonists.

“I stood out in the lobby after some of our early shows,” said Kyle, “and my favourite part was hearing parents saying to their kids, ‘wow! That was quite a story, wouldn’t that be crazy’ – and the kids telling their parents that actually, that’s right, that’s what it’s like.”

For parents, the show was hyperbole – but students, this show really presented the reality of college admissions, and the modern High School experience.

Kyle explained, “you disregard these experiences that these kids are going through – saying ‘you’re just a kid’ or ‘you’ll grow out of it’ or ‘you’ll look back on this and realize it wasn’t a big deal’.

“But we were watching them day in and day out, dealing with eating disorders and depression and a high anxiety and the whole gamut of what kids deal with. I think we’re doing ourselves a huge disservice by being dismissive of those feelings – and we’re dismissive of them because that’s easier than addressing the problems.”

Come up for air

So where do we go from here?

For Kyle, the enormous disadvantages that still face students from less well-off backgrounds is a huge problem with American Higher Education. “The Higher Education system right now seems to be designed to keep people out rather than to give access to people. There is so much profiting off of students trying to get into college.

“The best example is if you take one of my students that has a 3.5 GPA and is socio-economically disadvantaged and you put them up against a student who has all the money in the world – they can take the SAT seven times until they get the score they want they can pay for. It’s crippling for students from less affluent families.”

And there’s also a stark lesson for colleges and the education system: Higher Education might not be right for everyone.

“The character that I was most passionate about writing was the character Jordan, who has removed herself from the system,” said David, “because that’s what my experience was. I didn’t go to college and I still have a thriving career in musical theatre.

“If you don’t get into that perfect college then your life isn’t over and you don’t need to fall into a sinking pit of despair. Whether or not you get into that perfect college does not need to be the determiner of whether your life is good after the age of 18 or 19.”

And that, they both agree, is ultimately the message of the show: to change people’s ideas about what it means to be successful.


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The high school musical that predicted the admissions scandal

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