Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 9, 2010

Upon reflection

Silence, face-to-face contact are stress-busters at St. Francis

by Chris Kenrick

Is it constitutional for public high schools to mandate "a moment of quiet, focus time" at the beginning of every class?

Patricia Tennant, longtime principal at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, believes the answer is yes.

In her 28 years as a teacher, parent, counselor and now head of school at St. Francis, Tennant has watched student stress reach sky-high levels.

One of her school's most effective policies to address the problem, she believes, is a brief moment of prayer at the start of each St. Francis class period.

"We call it 'intentions,'" said Tennant, who has been principal for 14 years and continues to teach English to seniors. "It's a moment when students can express concerns or worries in their lives."

Some share poetry, others a simple thought.

"Kids raise their hands — it's all voluntary — and say things like, 'I pray for my little brother,' or 'I pray I make the right choice for college.'"

Other teachers turn off the lights and have quiet time for just a minute before they start the class, Tennant said.

"It's a spiritual dimension, and some people think it's a great way to focus the students," she said.

As a Catholic institution, St. Francis has far greater freedom than most high schools to mandate prayer in the classroom.

But Tennant believes public schools could offer similar benefits by instituting a different kind of policy — call it "focus time."

"I don't think it would be unconstitutional if the teacher said at the beginning of every class period, 'We're just going to have some quiet time,'" Tennant said.

"The students have just run in from some class. They've grabbed their books. It's just good moment to ask them to focus on what they're about to do," she said.

Tennant has observed with concern what she sees as a year-by-year escalation of stress on students at St. Francis.

"There's a lot of pressure that, a generation ago, just didn't exist," she said. "The stress level for our students accelerates every year, partially driven by our unique culture here in the Valley."

Tennant noted that many St. Francis parents attended top schools and value education and accomplishment. Stressing she does not blame parents, she said they may nonetheless create pressure.

"Whether parents recognize they communicate that pressure to their children or not is a big issue.

"It's a cultural thing. The community has very high expectations, and parents are part of this community, too."

St. Francis has taken many steps to address stressful conditions within its sphere of influence, while recognizing that certain stressors — such as the perceived expectations of colleges — are beyond the school's control, she said.

Quoting Sam Robin, a Holy Cross brother who works as a guidance counselor at St. Francis, Tennant said, "In our schoolhouse, we try to control the environment as much as we can.'

"Doing that means setting some rules and boundaries that take some pressures off our kids," Tennant said.

"So, for instance, we do have finals before Christmas. We made a decision about that prior to joining Challenge Success.

"Students told us they wanted to have breaks where they didn't have this cloud over them. We also have a rule that when we have a Thanksgiving or Easter break students aren't to be given major assignments. There's supposed to be downtime for kids."

Based on her years of observation, Tennant also monitors technology at St. Francis with a skeptical eye.

"Some of the cool things you can do on a computer are not people-friendly," she said.

She gave the example of a classroom full of students in which they are all silently "talking" to one another in online chat rooms.

"But what that means is students are not talking to each other eye to eye, picking up visual clues, hearing the tone of voice — all of the things that make us a social community.

"We believe strongly that it's people-to-people interaction that makes things happen, and that is a skill our students need to have."

St. Francis holds "silent retreats" for students —50 seniors were on such an outing last week — during which they spend three days reading, reflecting and speaking with adult "directors." But they maintain silence with peers, even at mealtime.

Other school-sponsored retreats and community-service trips are not silent — but all are technology-free, Tennant said.

"Every year we do service-oriented trips to Brazil, to New Orleans. The hardest thing with that is having the kids out of the country and the parents aren't allowed to communicate with them."

Despite dozens of policies to remove undue stress from the campus environment, Tennant continues to worry about the outside stresses on students that are beyond her control.

"The piece that's been really, really difficult for us to address is pressure from the outside: the number of AP and honors classes students feel they have to take in order to get into colleges.

"That's ramped up with all the publicity that, 'Joe Smith didn't get into Berkeley because he didn't have a 4.3 (grade-point average) and 18 AP classes.'

"It's impossible to help a student get perspective when that's what they hear they have to do. It's just impossible."

She hopes that colleges will recognize the role they play in increasing expectations and work with the high schools to change the situation.

"They're trying to get kids the best prepared, but where does it say you should be taking college classes in high school?

"We're as guilty of it as anyone else — we have lots and lots of AP and honors classes, but it's as if we feel like we have to."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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