Hard-charging high schools urge students to do less

Sprawling across two huge campuses in Chicago's affluent northern suburbs, the venerable New Trier High School is usually cited as the epitome of public-school excellence. Nearly 95 percent of its graduates go on to four-year colleges. Its courses cover marine biology and music theory, international relations and advanced Japanese. It boasts alums like Donald Rumsfeld, Liz Phair, Charlton Heston, and a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.

But lately the talk here has centered on a problem many schools would envy: how to tone down students' intensity.

New Trier, like a number of large, high-performing schools, is beginning to acknowledge that a culture of excellence can have a dark side, and that the push to craft gilded college applications can bring on stress and overscheduling. Now the school - considered a stalwart of traditional education - is rethinking everything from its schedule to class rank and weighted GPAs in an effort to alleviate pressure.

The proposals have caused a firestorm of debate in the community, but New Trier is hardly alone in beginning to consider stress along with test scores. These days, a number of powerhouses are changing their rhetoric to preach the value of sleep, family time, relaxation, and less homework.

"It's a big nut to crack," says Scott Laurence, principal of the prestigious Palo Alto High School in California. "The kids here are amazing - they're doing internships at NASA, they're on national travel teams for athletics.... But on the other side, it creates stress, and pressure, and self-destructive behavior - body-image issues and lack of sleep and drinking.... It's really difficult to find what the right balance is for each individual kid."

Among the proposals New Trier's board is expected to vote on Monday night is one that would make a lunch period mandatory, and require students who come in an hour early for "early bird" classes to take a free period later in the day. It seems a no-brainer - how could stopping for food not be a good thing? - but it's one of the most controversial ideas, and it points to the complications of mandating relaxation.

Many of the lunch skippers - nearly 150, in a school of 4,025 - are artists and musicians, and eating in class is one way they get in more of the electives they love while still taking requirements.

If she had to take a free period, says sophomore Melissa Birkhold, she couldn't take chamber orchestra next year. She already plays bassoon in concert orchestra and the wind ensemble, and aspires to be a professional musician. By senior year, she'd like to be taking four music classes.

"I think it's a good idea that the administration cares and wants to make our lives better," Melissa says, waiting for the bus after school. "But they're trying to cut out some of the arts classes, and they don't understand that that's what makes life fun.... I don't think they should tell me I have to take both lunch and a free period."

Still, proponents of the proposals say they send an important message. "There's this idea ... that if you have some empty time, you ought to fill it with something productive," says Jennifer Wexler, a math teacher who served on the strategic-planning team. Occasionally, she'll try to schedule a meeting with struggling students and find they don't have a single free moment. Mandatory lunch might not affect very many kids, "but I think it sends a good strong message about taking that time."

Administrators emphasize that lunch is just one piece of a spectrum of proposals that include rethinking the current nine-period school day.

Such shifts are what Denise Pope likes to see. Ms. Pope directs the Stressed Out Students (SOS) project at Stanford University's School of Education, and has started an annual conference for high schools. Last year, the program worked intensively with a handful of schools to ease the pressure students face.

The problems, she says, stem from a growing teenage population that means more students apply for fewer college slots, parents who define success by admission to a few elite colleges, and curricula that emphasize lots of homework, often divorced from real-world context.

"There are two kinds of solutions. Some I call Band-Aids, and some are root changes," says Pope. "For some of the schools, it's a huge success just to have conversations about this."

She urges schools to consider things like block scheduling, which means fewer classes each day, and to ask teachers to think about the purpose of homework and how they grade: "Build in an audience for real work, have teachers and students agree on what's high quality, and allow them to revise it until it is high quality."

Lynbrook High School, in San Jose, changed its whole semester system so that final exams fall before winter break, and created homework guidelines for teachers. Gunn High School, in Palo Alto, is surveying students, parents, and staff about activities, homework, and stress levels.

"They're burning the candle at both ends," says Noreen Likins, Gunn's principal. "To some degree, we're never going to be able to get away from this. It's the nature of the community, the way people here live their lives. But when it spills over to kids getting two or three hours of sleep a night, and doing too much, that's when we need to say enough is enough."

Nearly all those schools have done away with class rank and weighted GPAs, two of the actions New Trier is considering. When so many students excel, they say, comparing them to one another serves no purpose.

And more schools are taking an interest in students' nonschool activities. One of the proposals New Trier superintendent Henry Bangser is most excited about is the "personal exploration plan," or PEP, that advisers and parents would craft with each student. Together, they'd consider everything from sports to family time, and work to see where the student might crank the intensity down (or up). "It's our responsibility ... to help these young people learn that in some situations, more is not necessarily better," says Superintendent Bangser.

New Trier has a particular challenge with its size. Many of its more than 4,000 students complain that just making a basketball team or the school play is daunting. Thirty or 40 qualified students might compete for slots at the same college. Students can choose from nearly 150 clubs and dozens of sports teams, but the choice contributes to what assistant principal Jon White calls the "smorgasbord effect." "You walk into an all-you-can-eat buffet, and it all looks good and you want it all," he says. "But in fact you can't."

Junior Dan Levis, who worked on the strategic plan and was part of the committee that recommended the mandatory lunch, says he sees many classmates eager to take on too much, though he keeps his own schedule fairly reasonable: track, cross-country, and a program in which he helps sophomores transition from the freshman campus to the main campus. The North Shore's "culture of excellence," he says, "sometimes gets out of hand."

Dan has no illusions that the new plan would change things right away. But he hopes it's a start. "You can't change the culture of a community overnight," he says. "But if we put limits on people, maybe they'll begin to see that even if you can take eight majors, it doesn't mean you should."

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