Taking a deep breath | April 9, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 9, 2010

Taking a deep breath

From exam schedules to yoga to prayer, high schools take large and small steps to manage student stress

by Chris Kenrick

Just four years apart, Charlene Margot's son and daughter, Taylor and Brittany, had dramatically different experiences as students at Menlo-Atherton High School.

Taylor was a member of M-A's class of 2005, the very last with a school calendar that scheduled first-semester final exams in January, after winter break.

When little sister Brittany got there, finals had been moved to December — before the holidays.

The calendar change "has made a huge difference at M-A," Charlene Margot said.

"Students and families get a real break, real downtime. Families can take vacations and spend some family time without worrying that their teenager should be writing term papers and getting ready for finals.

"The trade-offs for everybody have been worth it. The school would never go back," Margot said.

Menlo-Atherton has joined a host of high schools around the country in re-evaluating a wide range of academic policies with an eye toward easing pressures on stressed-out students.

Some schools have acted on their own, responding to students' needs.

Others — including M-A, Gunn, Castilleja, Los Altos, Mountain View and St. Francis high schools — are working with a Stanford University-based organization called Challenge Success, headed by Senior Lecturer Denise Clark Pope.

Pope, herself a youthful Stanford graduate whose 1999 doctoral dissertation became the 2001 book "Doing School," has become something of a national guru on ways to combat epidemic stress levels in upper-middle-class high schools.

Chasing a "narrow notion of success" based on grades and test scores has led to epic levels of cheating, drug use, anxiety, sleeplessness, loneliness and other ills among high school students, Pope maintains.

"We're not anti-achievement. We're not about dumbing down.

"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," she said.

Pope's organization advocates school policies such as holding final exams before winter break, not publishing college acceptance lists and taking steps to make teachers approachable.

Such policies can begin to create healthier environments for stressed-out students, who should be able to find balance, engagement — and, yes, joy — in their high school years, Pope believes.

M-A is by no means the only local school to have moved first-semester finals to before the winter break.

Castilleja, St. Francis in Mountain View and others made the move some years ago.

Neither Gunn nor Palo Alto High School has implemented the calendar change. Paly has not formally participated in Challenge Success, but Gunn has.

Gunn students recently took a survey developed by the organization.

"We'll make sure to share the results with our students," Principal Noreen Likins said.

And Paly Principal Jacquie McEvoy said the school will move to a four-day block schedule this fall.

Moving first-term finals to before winter break is just one item on a long list of stress-reducing initiatives undertaken by schools.

"What I've noticed is a shift in the culture, if you will, a shift in the lens, so that people are really very open to look at ways we can reduce stress and improve learning environments," said Castilleja French teacher Lauren Schryver, who is also junior class dean at the school.

"I've been here 16 years. Fourteen years ago, if the question of (too much) homework came up at a faculty meeting people would say, 'Well, this is a college-prep school and that's the way it has to be.

"But now people are really looking at this issue of stress and taking it very seriously, not only at Castilleja but in our community, Silicon Valley and the nation.

"We're not just saying we want to cut back, but asking how we can be smarter in terms of teaching and learning."

Teaching and learning "smarter" have taken many forms at local schools, from new honor codes to "sleep-in days" to revised academic calendars to "dialogue nights."

Some policies, involving such habits as taking a moment of prayer at the start of class, requiring both students and faculty to participate in extracurriculars and offering yoga classes, cannot be replicated easily by large public high schools that labor under budget constraints, union contracts and the California Education Code.

But collaboration among schools at Pope's twice-yearly Challenge Success conferences scramble the lines among public, independent and parochial institutions.

While there are few one-size-fits-all solutions, participants insist that many ideas can be adapted for crossover use.

For example, St. Francis High School Principal Patricia Tennant believes it's constitutional for a public high school to require a brief moment of "focus time" at the start of each classroom period, yielding benefits akin to what St. Francis achieves from its policy of prayerful reflection at the start of each class period. (See sidebar.)

And Schryver suggests that public schools can inject "wellness" education into their curricula even though yoga studios in public schools may never match facilities in Castilleja's new, state-of-the-art athletic building.

Several administrators mentioned the work of Stanford Professor of Psychology Carol Dweck whose popular 2006 book, "Mindset," posits that people can be taught to develop an empowering "growth mindset" when confronting challenges rather than a self-limiting "fixed mindset."

The book was required reading for Castilleja's entire faculty last summer.

The school hopes to implement software Dweck created for middle school students "to help them learn how to develop a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset," Schryver said.

She mentioned a Paly teacher who already has successfully used Dweck's software in a class of freshman geometry students, "with measurable results, as well as wonderful anecdotal results."

Arming students with some measure of control whenever possible can be a great stress-reducer, school leaders said.

At Menlo-Atherton, one example is a "rigor scale," in which students rate on a scale of 1 to 5 the rigor of various classes.

"Even within the APs, there are some more rigorous than others," said Margot, whose son and daughter both took AP loads.

Armed with the knowledge of how challenging each class might be, the students can mentally prepare themselves.

"It gives them more power over their schedules.

"We don't say, 'Don't take this,' but 'Think about the balance, and plan according to your own priorities.'"

At St. Francis, members of the student council get to draft the schedule for final exams.

"We have one idea of what we think are the hardest finals and they have a totally different idea, and they choose which combination of subjects should be scheduled together during finals week," Tennant said.

Christopher Blair, head of Castilleja's Upper School, said students need some sense of control over their lives.

He cited a March 26 New York Times article about Sandlot Day 2010, an effort to give kids in organized sports leagues "the gift of pickup baseball," noting the irony of parents organizing what should be kid-initiated play.

"We need to make sure students know they have some choices. ... If they don't have any sense of control, that's the real stress inducer."

Armed with research saying adolescents should sleep as much as 9.5 hours a night and ideally need to sleep past 7:30 a.m., schools are working toward creating space in students' lives for better sleep.

At Castilleja, which hosted both Stanford sleep researcher William Dement and Mark Rosekind of Cupertino's Alertness Solutions as guest speakers, Wednesday is now "sleep-in day." On that day, classes begin at 8:45 a.m. instead of 8 a.m.

Menlo-Atherton also is grappling with the sleep issue following a directive from Sequoia Union High School District trustees calling for a later start time. The decision follows a Dec. 16 presentation to the trustees by Rosekind.

This fall, M-A students with six or fewer periods will begin their school days at 8:45 a.m. Students with seven periods will begin at 7:50, the current start time.

"While it's ultimately going to be good for our kids, it's very difficult to make any schedule changes in high school because it impacts athletic schedules, bus schedules and working parents. All those things are very difficult," Margot said.

St. Francis students have the option of sleeping in several mornings a week because of the school's "block schedule," in which a student carrying a seven-course load has four classes one day and three the next.

On the three-class days, first period is called "collaboration period," during which a student may choose to meet with a teacher in the classroom to get help, make up missed work or just talk — or alternatively, to stay home and sleep in.

"We've found the block schedule to be an amazing de-stressor because in any one day you have a maximum of four classes. You're not running from class to class, starting and stopping every 50 minutes," Tennant said.

Block schedules allow students to immerse themselves in the subject each class period as well as bringing other benefits.

"What the kids really understand is that they only have homework for four or three classes every evening, so they're not preparing for seven things, which can happen when you have a traditional schedule.

"It also means you only have to bring materials every other day, so you don't have a crushing backpack on your back."

Another stress-reducer at Castilleja has been a wellness curriculum incorporating yoga, meditation and education about lifelong wellness, Blair and Schryver said.

"The wellness course itself is designed to help girls understand who they are and to reduce stress," Blair said.

Schools are also opening up communication among students, teachers and parents as a way to reduce stress.

At St. Francis, students show up on "professional development days" to explain to teachers what their lives look like and the pressures they're under.

"It's always a wake-up call for our faculty to have them recognize these kids have a lot going on in their lives," Tennant said.

Castilleja has instituted "dialogue nights" for junior students and parents to explore hidden — or not-so-hidden — messages in communication.

In one recent session, Schryver said, parents and students watched a short skit in which a student comes home and the parent says, 'Hi, honey. How was your day? How did you do on the biology test?'

"Then we ask the parents to critique it: What were the hidden messages? How might the parent rewind the tape and do a better job?" Blair said. "We've had very good participation in these events."

M-A has worked to improve communication — and student buy-in — around its honor code, known as the "Academic Integrity Contract."

"We rewrote (the honor code) based on survey data about cheating," Margot said.

"It took a lot of wrangling with parents concerned about their students being caught for violations that would affect their college applications versus staff who wanted a clear-cut academic integrity contract in place."

Unlike the previous honor code, the new integrity contract is formal and signed by every student at the beginning of the year.

Consequences for violations — which are cumulative, and remain with a student from ninth grade on — are made clear, Margot said.

"There is plenty of warning for students, and they know the rules from the beginning," she said.

In an effort to better align its student awards with its 21st-century mission of encouraging student engagement and global outlook, Castilleja has eliminated most awards based on grade-point average.

At graduation ceremonies, the traditional "salutatorian speech" for the girl with the second-highest grade point average, has been replaced with a speech by the winner of the Castilleja Award, Blair said.

The winner, chosen by the faculty, is the girl thought to best exemplify the "five Cs" that the school says comprise its core values: conscience, courtesy, character, courage and charity.

In keeping with its mission to "educate the whole person, spiritually, academically and socially," St. Francis requires each of its 1,600 students to get their noses out of books by participating in at least two sports or clubs each year.

"When they get involved in clubs and sports, it's playtime, it's recess time," Tennant said.

Although students who aim to become college athletes may find sports as stress-ridden as academics, for the majority of youth, sports are a way to relax, she said.

"If you're a DJ on the student radio station, you're having fun; if you're writing poetry for Cafe Mot, you're having fun; if you're meeting on Friday afternoons to play board games, you're having fun.

"It's a way of rounding out their lives so they're not in the books morning, noon and night."

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


Like this comment
Posted by Judy Rucker
a resident of Los Altos
on Apr 10, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Great article-couldn't agree more! I wonder if it would be possible for schools--private and public--to offer yoga among the PE activities at school, thus combining the stress reduction factor with the physical regimen? Do they already?

Like this comment
Posted by paly parent
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 10, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Not one single mention of anything PAUSD is doing to reduce stress for their students.

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Posted by Katie
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 10, 2010 at 3:48 pm

@paly parent: The article states that Paly is beginning the four-day block schedule this fall to reduce stress. Classes will also start at 8:15 vs. 7:50 now.

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Posted by Informant
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 10, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Apparently, since PAUSD is a "unified school district", the academic calendar has to please all schools and if finals are before Winter Break, the school year needs to begin a few days earlier and the elementary schools are opposed to that, claiming that some kinders are not old enough to start earlier.

Los Altos School District has finals before Winter Break and are pleased with it. Clearly, it is a stress-reducer to be able to enjoy Winter Break and that's what PAUSD should do for our children.

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Posted by paly parent
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 11, 2010 at 10:33 am

Katie - it is not clear to me whether the 4 day block schedule will reduce or add to stress. My kids hate the 2 block days and dread them because they are usually bored by the end of class. (And yes, they watch movies on block days). Gunn's schedule, hour long classes, 6 a day (so you don't have one of your classes every day) was never even considered. It seems to be a better compromise, longer class but not too long, every class 4 days a week (better for Foreign Language and Math) instead of 3, homework for 6 not 7 classes.

Aside from the schedule change, everything else in the article is about what non-PAUSD school are doing to reduce student stress. In an earlier post, PAUSD students had 2 requests, nicer teachers and prompt feedback on tests and papers. No mention of any effort for the district to work on that.

Palo Alto seems to determined to increase our students stress instead of decrease it. For example, PAUSD Star testing is at the same time as AP tests, the District has a 21 day testing window, yet schedules Star testing at the same time as the AP tests. And if you are in a AP class in PAUSD, you have to take the corresponding Star test.

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Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 11, 2010 at 11:49 am

Starting school at 8:45, or even 8:30, would be a tremendous improvement.

Also, finals before Christmas would be a huge improvement.
Might as well end the school year earlier and conclude with
STAR testing and then AP exams.

I don't agree about the block schedule, though. Gunn has a
bad case of this and it is generally negative. Better to have
a fixed schedule most days.

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Posted by paula G. Feldman
a resident of another community
on Apr 11, 2010 at 12:50 pm

I am an educational consultant who echoes Dr. Pope's reflections on how stressful the pressure to "Do School" has become. So often parents and schools have forgotten the need to look at education as a process towards adulthood and not a self-centered and narrow path to the best colleges, as documented by a magazine or self-reporting universities. What happened to education for education sake? Thank goodness for Dr. Pope and the wisdom she is disseminating.

Paula G. Feldman,MS Educational Consultant
working with children from across the States and internationally

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Posted by paly parent
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 11, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Ms. Feldman -

I totally agree with Dr. Pope's reflections and education should be a process (and as a Paly student said in the Campanile, graduating from high school is a huge accomplishment in and of itself). Unfortunately, of the seniors I know, the only non-athletes who got into their top choice schools are the one who chose that "narrow path to college" They did nothing but school work and extracurricular activities related to their "resume" for the four years of high school. And even many students who gave up all their social life in high school got into only their last choice schools.

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 12, 2010 at 8:22 am

I've mentioned this before - it is a difficult task to move PAUSD to a earlier start when you consider how many families (through work) are tied to the Stanford academic calendar.

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Posted by paly parent
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 12, 2010 at 9:05 am

Dad - Stanford doesn't start til well into September (I think it was the 20th or so this year) so no matter when we start, it doesn't line up for Stanford employees. If we got rid of the "local holidays" in the first semester and did not worry about the semesters being exactly even since we have lots of non-academic school days 2nd semester, we could move finals. The second semester contains STAR testing (2 days in HS, more for the younger kids), CASHEE (2 days) and a day at Paly when they just do college related things, so thats a week of non-academics in the 2nd semester.

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 12, 2010 at 10:30 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

It is time to disconnect the school year from the harvest year.

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Posted by parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 12, 2010 at 3:22 pm

I remember taking Yoga as a PE course at Gunn back in either 1978 or 1979. It would be a fine class to reintroduce to PAUSD high schools.

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Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 14, 2010 at 6:55 pm

One of our children attended a public school outside PAUSD that had block classes every day, and we found it was a better schedule than the one at Paly. With longer classes, the teachers were able to go more in depth, and preparing for fewer classes per day was less mentally exhausting, even with the same total amount of homework. From our experience, the block classes help reduce stress and I am pleased that Paly has taken this step.

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Posted by Paly Mom
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 20, 2010 at 10:44 pm

I've been teaching for a while in a district that has 4 block days and one traditional day, and I thought Paly's schedule with 2 block days was much better. Students that have trouble staying focused for a long time get bored and fidgety, no matter how much one changes up the activities. This is particularly true if they don't like or have trouble with the subject (math, for example). I've also noticed that there's a tendency not to use time quite as well with longer classes and, therefore, not to cover as much material.
I do like the idea of a later start, however, and I'm glad they've made this adjustment. At some point, they were discussing a period when students could get extra help or go to talk with a teacher about an assignment, but it looks like this might not have made it into the final schedule. Does anyone know?
I would definitely like teachers to return papers in a timely manner (some do, but many don't) and not to equate supporting students with "babying" them. Hopefully, a new principal will address the issue of school culture, which is at the heart of the stress problem.

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Posted by Informant
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 20, 2010 at 11:39 pm

Acc. to administration, the community service hours are no longer going appear on transcripts (if one serves 100 hours it's noted). Not sure when this will begin but it will take pressure off students too. Administration claims the spirit of community service hours has been lost due to students volunteering for the sake of the transcript.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.