When she convened her first student stress conference six years ago, Stanford lecturer Denise Clark Pope never imagined the annual event would grow to huge proportions.
From 300 attendees in 2003, sign-ups for the public panel discussion this Friday will exceed the capacity of Stanford's 1,700-seat Memorial Auditorium.
In private sessions Saturday, 22 school teams from around the country will toss around ideas on how schools can help to broaden the rigid notion of "success" that has taken hold on so many hyper-competitive campuses -- high grades, top test scores and acceptance into prestigious colleges.
Participating local schools include Castilleja, Menlo-Atherton, Mountain View, Los Altos and St. Francis high schools, as well as Palo Alto public schools Pope could not name because they had not signed publicity releases.
Chasing a narrow notion of success has led to epic levels of cheating, drug use, anxiety, sleeplessness, loneliness and other ills among high school students, Pope has found in her research.
"We're not anti-achievement. We're not about dumbing down," she said.
"But we know that when you organize school policies and practices a certain way you can foster very high-achieving, healthy adults. It's not mutually exclusive."
Pope's organization, Challenge Success, advocates school policies such as holding final exams before winter break, not publishing college acceptance lists and taking steps to make teachers approachable.
Steps such as these can begin to create healthier environments for stressed-out students, who should be able to find balance, engagement and joy in their high school lives while achieving their maximum potential, she said.
Pope sees glimmerings of change in the high-stress system, not just in high schools but among college admissions officers as well.
Longtime Harvard Admissions Dean William Fitzsimmons has just written a "huge policy brief" about how the system is not working and is stressing out students, she said.
With new policies of some colleges -- including some highly selective schools -- of not requiring the SAT and accepting the Common Application, change is beginning to occur, she said.
She also cited the College Board's decision this year to reinstate "score choice" for students, allowing a student to decide which test scores admissions officers will receive.
"Nobody is satisfied with the current college admissions process. You've got a lot of people trying to work on changes.
"Everybody is trying to improve it for the kids," said Pope, who last year gave a keynote speech at the convention of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a gathering of college admissions officers and high school counselors.
"I have high hopes that the system will be different by the time my youngest child (a third grader) applies to college," she said.
Pope, a former high school English teacher, stumbled upon her findings about student stress while doing research for a doctoral dissertation at the Stanford School of Education.
She hoped to learn about how top students view their high school experience, and spent a year shadowing five high-achieving students at a top public high school (local, but unnamed).
"I rotated the days, went to all the classes, ate lunch and interviewed the students between classes," said Pope, who could nearly pass for a high school student herself.
"At the end of the year, each one of them has a chapter they helped me write."
Her findings were nothing like what she expected.
"I'm shadowing these top students and they're basically saying, 'You've got to cut corners, you've got to cheat.'
"One ended up with a bleeding ulcer, another had anxiety attacks, another had test anxiety.
"The story to be told was not what's working, but what these kids were going through. On the outside these were good kids. Very few people knew they were sleeping three hours a night, taking uppers -- the other side of the picture of the high achiever."
Pope's 1999 dissertation became the 2001 book, "Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students."
When she held her first "Stressed-Out Students" conference in 2003, Pope said she did not anticipate how her message would resonate with parents. Last year the "Stressed-Out Students" organization was rebranded "Challenge Success."
At the conference this weekend, Friday night's public session at Memorial Auditorium will feature psychologist Michael Thompson, author of the New York Times bestseller "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys," and Chris Kelly, chief privacy officer and head of global public policy at Facebook.