LOS ANGELES — Inside the San Marino Unified School District boardroom, a special class is in session. Eight students fit neatly into two rows of chairs. Pauline Chen looks at the floor. Speaking in her native Mandarin, she describes how she drove her daughters Julie and Maggie to achieve so they could earn admission to University of California campuses. For her 14-year-old son, Steven, she has set her sights on Stanford.
But the academic pressure makes for a tense home life. Her son avoids telling her about school. They fight over homework; she does not think five hours a day is enough.
Frustrated by the fights with Steven, she enrolled in this class. I want "to go with the flow," she says, "to have a more accepting heart."
Persuading parents not to push their children too hard is precisely the point of this six-week course. In fact, the class attended by six mothers and two fathers of students in San Marino, a Los Angeles suburb is part of a wave of such initiatives that target high-achievers and their parents nationwide.
In California, for example, school districts in Ventura and San Diego counties have passed new guidelines to cut down on homework. Seven public schools in San Francisco have added yoga to the curriculum, in part as a stress reliever. The Palos Verdes district in Southern California has used state funding to provide new counselors who keep a close eye on bright troubled students.
"We have meetings with parents all the time to try and notch it down," says Jack Rose, the San Marino superintendent. "We talk about ... having children succeed at their own particular pace."
Nationally, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, in accreditation visits to some top United States boarding schools, has begun asking them to reduce the frenzied pace on campus.
As a result, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., has launched a study with the aim of simplifying its schedule. In a suburb of Minneapolis, a new group called Family Life First has taken to bestowing "Seals of Approval" on schools and programs that take measures to "balance priorities."
For most high school students, research suggests, pressure is not a problem. A recent survey by Public Agenda, a New York-based nonprofit, found that most students reported they were not pushed hard enough. But in the narrow realm of bright students who apply to the most selective colleges, educators, parents, and psychologists perceive an ever-mounting set of stresses.
The most selective universities are becoming even more so. Admission rates to Ivy League colleges and top University of California campuses have declined. UC Berkeley, for example, admitted 29 percent of applicants in 2000, down from 39.9 percent five years earlier. Hoping to stand out, high-achieving students have swelled the enrollments of advanced classes, summer schools, and college programs open to high-schoolers.
"To go to school and do well enough to get into a top college it's become like a job," says Anne Foster-Keddie, the student-body president at El Segundo High School, located south of Los Angeles. "Except the hours are longer than most jobs."
Adults sometimes send mixed messages to youngsters.
The Alhambra City and High School Districts in the Los Angeles area aggressively refer stressed-out students to counselors. At the same time, they aggressively promote university study with a new "Kindergarten Through College" program. Children attend campus rallies where they wear T-shirts with their college choices.
This semester, Katharine Clemmer, an advanced-placement (AP) calculus teacher at El Segundo High, decided to try an experiment in stress relief: She stopped assigning homework.
"The children have been pushed too hard," she says.
Her decision has been greeted with as much trepidation as joy. Ms. Foster-Keddie, who sits in a fourth-row seat, says that without homework, tests count more. At the same time, she and her classmates appreciate the lighter load.
Foster-Keddie takes two other AP classes, including a special economics class that requires her to show up at school by 7 a.m. She is a teacher's aide in a biology and plays on a volleyball team that keeps her out on some school nights until nearly 11.
She is also apart from her parents, who moved away for business reasons three years ago. After going to Connecticut and Washington State with them, she moved back to El Segundo, where she was more comfortable with the school and her friends. Now she does the laundry and grocery shopping at the duplex she shares with her 24-year-old sister, Katharine.
As far as Foster-Keddie is concerned, the work has paid off. She has been accepted by Yale.
"Anne puts a ton of pressure on herself, in part to live up to her older siblings," says Katharine, who attended Yale. "But Anne has also taken on more and accomplished more."
"I got the first B of high school last semester, in literature, and I was really upset about it," Anne says.
In calculus, Foster-Keddie and her fellow students seem almost unnerved by the more relaxed atmosphere. Instead of lectures and homework review, Ms. Clemmer's class consists of problem-solving in teams.
"There's a lot more energy, and if students have a problem, they don't struggle alone," Clemmer says.
In San Marino, the school district's class for parents is gathered in the boardroom for its Thursday night meeting.
Rosa Zee, who began teaching the course more than two years ago, is a former school board member and teacher. She teaches in Mandarin on Thursday nights, in English on Saturdays. She covers a variety of subjects related to parenting, from cultural differences to showing children physical affection. But at the heart of the course is this message: Parents need to ease up.
Ms. Chen joined the class shortly after it was first offered, hoping to improve her relationship with her youngest child, Steven, from whom she expects great things.
A freshman at San Marino High, Steven first declared he would attend Stanford when he was 7. His mother smiles broadly every time Stanford comes up in conversation. When he spends too much time playing games on the computer instead of doing homework or gets a lackluster grade, his mother brings up Stanford. It won't accept a student who doesn't study hard, she reminds him.
She "brags about" his sisters to her friends, Steven says, but she nags him. They agree, however, that the fighting is happening less these days. Steven thinks it's because of the class.
"When I go to that class I feel calm," Chen says. "Now I go with the flow."
For her son, Stanford is no longer the only option. USC or a University of California school, she says, would be good enough.