NEEDHAM, Mass. – It was 6:30 p.m. The lights were still on at Needham High School, here in the affluent Boston suburbs.
Paul Richards, the principal, was meeting with the students, teachers and parents who serve on the “stress reduction committee.” On the agenda: finding the right time to bring in experts to train students in relaxation techniques.
Do not try to have them teach relaxation in study hall, said Olivia Boyd, a senior. Students, she said, will not want to interrupt their work. It had already been established that students were too busy before or after school for the training.
Josh Goldman, captain of varsity tennis, president of the Spanish club and a member of the student council, was not able to squeeze in the meeting at all. Richards noted Josh’s absence wryly. “Josh is a perfect example,” he said. “He’s got a hundred things going on.”
It is all part of the high-powered culture that Richards is trying to change, even a little. But cultural change does not come smoothly. When he stopped publishing the honor roll in the local newspaper last winter, a move aimed at some parents who had turned the lists into a public accounting, Rush Limbaugh accused him of politically correct coddling of students, and Jay Leno mocked the school on national television. Richards received hate mail from all over the country.
But he is undeterred.
“It’s not that I’m trying to turn the culture upside down,” Richards said. “It’s very important to protect the part of the culture that leads to all the achievement. It’s more about bringing the culture to a healthier place.”
The new stress reduction committee is starting to formulate recommendations, like the relaxation consultants. It is surveying students about the causes of the unhealthy stress. This term, Richards is talking up the yoga classes that are required of all seniors. He has asked teachers to schedule some homework-free weekends and holidays.
The homework breaks have not worked out exactly as Richards had planned. “The irony,” he said, “is that students tell us they appreciate the time because it allows them to catch up on other schoolwork.”
Richards is just one principal in the vanguard of a movement to push back against an ethos of super achievement at affluent suburban high schools amid the extreme competition over college admissions. He has joined like-minded administrators from 44 other high schools and middle schools – most in the San Francisco Bay area, but some scattered in Texas, Indiana, New York and Massachusetts – known as SOS, for Stressed Out Students.
The group was formed four years ago by Denise Pope, a lecturer at the Stanford School of Education, who said she had become alarmed by the unhealthy competitiveness she encountered at a Bay Area high school, where she was researching her Ph.D. dissertation. That study became her book, “Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students” (Yale University Press, 2001).
High schools in other Boston suburbs – Wellesley, Lexington, Wayland – have taken steps similar to Needham’s, organizing stress reduction committees and yoga classes. Some high schools are requiring students to meet with teachers, and get parental permission, before enrolling in Advanced Placement classes. Some schools are experimenting with later start times so students can get more sleep.
Pope advises schools to end the tradition of student newspapers publishing the end-of-the-year lists of seniors and their colleges. “We found that there are kids who are lying,” she said, because they are embarrassed to say they are going to a state school.
Back at Needham, there is some grumbling that measures like homework-free holidays could erode academic rigor.
“You run out of time,” said Max Hekler, an English teacher. “You can’t teach ‘The Odyssey.’ Something has to go.”
Needham began intense self-examination a couple years ago, after four of its young people – one in college, two in high school and one in middle school – committed suicide. While school officials emphasized that the suicides were not related to stress, the deaths heightened concerns about how Needham’s students were responding to school pressure.
Even before the suicides, Needham school officials had responded to youth surveys indicating troubling rates of alcohol and drug use and depression — rates like those at other affluent high schools – by establishing an initiative, starting in elementary school, to help students develop better emotional and social skills.
“Today kids’ lives are just so programmed and so protected and so separated from anything that is difficult for them that they don’t learn how to handle problems when they’re young,” said George Johnson, the director of student development for Needham public schools.
Richards, 36, arrived here three years ago from Nantucket, where, as principal of the island’s high school, he had to push students to aim higher. For all the academic advantages of Needham High School, what struck him, he said, was the cost to all this achieving and performing.
Many students were so stressed out about grades and test scores – and so busy building resumes to get into the small number of brand-name colleges they equated with success – that, he said, they could not fully engage with school.
“A lot of these kids,” he said, “are being held hostage to the culture.”
Richards, who is pursuing his doctorate at Boston College, made himself an expert in research on stress. In his office one recent morning, he grabbed a marker and drew the Yerkes-Dodson curve on a flip chart to illustrate scientific findings that while a certain amount of stress is necessary for learning and growth, too much interferes.
He said he was also concerned with widespread cheating, mostly by students copying homework and failing to fully cite sources. Cheating, experts say, is a problem at high schools nationwide.
Richards said he wanted to create a school where students could cope better with the inevitable setbacks — where, he said, “they don’t fall apart if they get a B-minus.”
At assemblies he encourages students to think about choosing classes that are challenging but manageable, rather than trying to rack up the highest number of advanced placement courses. He talks to students and parents about aiming for colleges that are the right fit – whether Harvard or the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Richards earned his master’s in education at Harvard, and his undergraduate at UMass.
Richards acknowledges that his efforts are a work in progress. Still, some are skeptical.
“The stress reduction – I’m still waiting,” said Harris Feldman, a senior, as he watched his classmates gathering in the wrestling room for yoga class.
Harris had arrived from English class, where his teacher, David Smokler, had begun a new unit on writing the college essay by trying to reassure his students that the name of the school did not matter. “When you graduate from college, no one is going to care where you went,” Smokler said. “If they do care, you don’t want to work for that boss.”