Their chatter is audible from the hallway, where I stand peering through a window at 14 high school girls sitting on a circle of yoga mats inside the new wellness studio at Newton South. Most are shoeless, and wearing comfortable sweaters and sweatshirts. Michelle Coppola, one of the eight wellness teachers the school has brought in since 2003, motions me into the room. Soft music is already playing.
This is Newton South’s Centered Self class, and, as the name suggests, it bears little resemblance to the AP English and advanced chem that are the more typical province of today’s ambitious high schooler. As we assume our cross-legged positions, Coppola doesn’t waste any time: Since Centered Self meets only twice a week, every moment counts. She asks us to close our eyes and breathe deeply; everyone complies. (I peeked.) Over the next 45 minutes, we will also write in our journals, discuss the “fight or flight” response, practice our breathing, then break into pairs to talk about it all.
As Ruthie Bolotin, an energetic junior, and I sit face-to-face on one of the yoga mats, she tells me that during a simple biofeedback exercise—in which Coppola had us monitor our heartbeat for 15 seconds while thinking of something stressful—her pulse raced from 16 to 24. Ruthie had focused on a difficult situation with friends. “Then I thought of the beach,” she says, putting her hands in her lap and smiling. “I dig this class.”
This, of course, is not how most of us remember high school.
And yet this is the new reality for many top-tier local schools striving to help students manage the pressure and anxiety that fill their adolescent existence. At Newton South, that means required core wellness courses (two per year) for freshmen and sophomores, while juniors and seniors choose from among such burnout-battling electives as dance and ultimate Frisbee. Centered Self has become one of the most popular offerings, with up to 30 students in each section, while yoga/Pilates, new this year, already boasts six classes of 20 to 27 students each. The goal of the whole program, says wellness teacher Todd Elwell, is to give students a break from the grind of academics and teach them how to deal with issues like self-esteem and pressure. Even when they’re playing ultimate Frisbee, the aim is less catching and throwing, and more “cooperating with other kids in a meaningful activity.”
At Lexington High, students can choose yoga and stress management to fulfill graduation requirements, and are now allowed to opt out of certain fourth-year classes, including science and math, in favor of others that interest them more. Wellesley High School added yoga to its fitness program a few years ago, and has also taken away midyear exams, which has helped to alleviate what guidance director Thom Hughart calls “the s-word.” And at Dana Hall, an all-girls prep school across town, students cannot receive more than 45 minutes of homework a night for each class (excluding APs), and there is a master calendar that lets teachers stagger tests. Boarders are free to take a mental health day (except the school calls it a “personal wellness” day) once a year; all students get “homework consideration” on nights when there are major school events; and the phys ed curriculum now includes the seemingly obligatory yoga. This year the school also brought in a “sleep specialist,” who talked to students about dealing with insomnia, and presented tips on “quieting the mind” and getting adequate rest. At the Commonwealth School in Boston (which has introduced its own anxiety-fighting workshops and, during exams, a classroom dedicated to relaxation and breathing exercises), headmaster Bill Wharton goes so far as to say that stress management is as important as academics. “If we’re not giving students the psychological tool kit to cope with the demands we’re placing on them, that’s tantamount to not issuing them pens and paper,” he says.
But such programs have not been without controversy. Over the past year, the most famous—Needham High School’s Stress Reduction Committee (SRC)—has been working toward instituting homework-free weekends and vacations, while before that the school added yoga classes, coordinated exam schedules, and, in 2006, stopped publishing the honor roll. In response, local and national media, not to mention many Needham parents, have blasted its creator, principal Paul Richards, for being too soft. As a result, Richards now has to “manage” his press; he declined to be interviewed for this article, saying the school wouldn’t be ready for more exposure until the fall. “Ironically, coverage loses credibility for this work with some teachers at the school,” he said via e-mail.
Needham senior and SRC member Nick Simmons-Stern says the negative publicity is unfair. For one, many students were indifferent to the honor roll—”It’s the parents who want to show off their kids in the newspaper that care,” he says. Now Nick and a few friends from the football team even take yoga classes outside of school. “It started as a joke,” he says, “but I like it a lot. It’s relaxing.” Nick’s father, Bob Stern, sings the SRC’s praises. “The more communication from the school, the better,” he says. “I see Richards’s efforts as being really superb.” Still, he’d like to see other steps, like more funding and a smaller student-teacher ratio—anything that could bring “less stress overall and, more importantly, less stress that goes wild,” he says.
Surely, teens have always had stress—I know I dealt with my fair share as a high schooler in the late ’90s. But in the past few years, the stakes for the overachiever have risen dramatically, as ever more talented kids aim for elite colleges. Here in Massachusetts, public high schoolers are taking—and excelling on—AP tests in record numbers. In 2006, 7 percent more students took AP exams than in 2005; since 2001, the number participating in AP tests increased by just under 50 percent. Even tests that don’t really count inspire panic: Over the past few years Jim Schreider, a private SAT instructor who works with clients in the MetroWest suburbs, has received a heady 41 percent return on his mailings for tutoring offerings for the PSAT, the dry run for the SAT that’s usually taken in the fall of junior year. He has a two-year waitlist for private instruction.
As part of its initial stress-mitigation efforts, Needham High conducted a survey of 1,121 students and found that more than half labeled the school’s culture as “sink or swim,” with 75 percent identifying academics as being a stressor in their life, and about one-third citing college placement and preparation and the expectations of parents—and themselves. (Fully 44 percent said they were willing to “suffer” in school to get accepted to the college of their choice.) Of the prevailing attitude, Needham senior Olivia Boyd says, “Everyone has to go to college, everyone has to take the highest-level courses, everyone has to do everything.”
Katie Sanders, a senior at Newton South, is one of those kids. She’s coeditor of The Lion’s Roar, one of South’s two student newspapers, and has been published in The Best Teen Writing of 2007. She’s also captain of the girls’ varsity softball team, managing editor of design for the student art and literary magazine, head officer of the Community Service Club, a candy striper, and a freelance writer. And that barely covers the first page of her résumé, which is two pages long and color coordinated, and cites nearly 20 honors and awards.
Katie is the first to admit that her life sounds like a laundry list. But she says she loves being busy; she also hopes to get into an Ivy League school, and hey, whatever it takes. She estimates it should take her three full days to complete everything she generally schedules into one, so she has learned to prioritize. She sacrifices sleep. She stopped playing volleyball this year. She also could have done without the stress unit of her junior wellness course.
“Personally, learning about stress wasn’t helpful,” she says. “I know how to relax; I just don’t have time to relax. I’m in a constant battle with the clock.” Katie would have preferred to study for a test than to “assess her stress” every day for two weeks, which was one of her assignments that term. “I can say pretty validly that everyone half-assed it.”