Destressing high achievers

At some high-performing suburban high schools, students pile on activities and advanced classes, hoping to qualify for elite colleges. Stress is intense. In the Chicago suburbs, New Trier High is trying to get students to chill out. The Christian Science Monitor reports:

Among the proposals New Trier’s board is expected to vote on Monday night is one that would make a lunch period mandatory, and require students who come in an hour early for “early bird” classes to take a free period later in the day. It seems a no-brainer – how could stopping for food not be a good thing? – but it’s one of the most controversial ideas, and it points to the complications of mandating relaxation.

Many of the lunch skippers – nearly 150, in a school of 4,025 – are artists and musicians, and eating in class is one way they get in more of the electives they love while still taking requirements.

When I went to Highland Park High, New Trier was our arch rival. It was a high-stress place back in the ’60s: We always said they had more suicides.

The principal of my daughter’s high school, Palo Alto, is quoted in the story too. She had classmates who were incredible achievers; she saved her sanity by not doing sports, but thought it hurt her when she applied to colleges.

College admissions is the key factor here. As long as competitive colleges demand students take the hardest courses in all subjects, including those in which they have no interest, and excel in a wide range of activities, they’ll drive the competitive students to do more and more.

About Joanne


  1. Steve LaBonne says:

    And also as long as parents and kids continue to swallow the BS reputations of those competitive schools, many of which are research-oriented institutions that do a second-rate job, at best, of teaching undergrads.

  2. Andy Freeman says:

    It doesn’t take long for most students to figure out that if they’re being graded on a curve, there is no such thing as extra credit AKA “makeup work”.

  3. Carl Larson says:

    Joanne, I went to New Trier East around 1980. I don’t recall hating Highland Park so much, but don’t get me started on Evanston.

    For the record, there were two (maybe three)suicides during my senior year.

    I wish I could have skipped lunch. Back then the New Trier East lunch room was not a very hospitable place for a math geek.

  4. Steve’s is right, I think. Certainly the education that most kids get at a tier 1 school isn’t any better, and is often worse, than they’d get at a school with a mediocre reputation. I went to Ohio State in the early 70’s, and got as good an education as my friends that went to Ivy League schools. The primary loss for me was social — I was the only undergraduate in most of the classes that I took, and I got to know almost none of the other students.

    I will encourage my kids to apply to places like Stanford and Harvard, but I’ll also tell them that it isn’t a disaster if they don’t get in. (Although the idea that they might wind up like me would probably frighten rather than reassure them…)

  5. When our daughter was three my wife and I looked around for nursery schools for her. At one we were ushered into the office of the principal, er, “education director,” whose first words to us were, “Fairfax County (Virginia) has the highest teenage suicide rate in the nation!” My wife and I looked at each other, baffled, and we both blurted out, “But Jessie’s only three!” The ED’s point was that Sleepy Hollow (I think that’s what it was) was not a high pressure, academic nursery school. And it wasn’t. I think Jessie learned how to swing (on a swing) there, which was good.