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Later Start Times, Less Homework: Here’s What Elite Schools Are Doing To Help Students Cope With Stress

By Karen Ann Cullotta, Karen Berkowitz, Kimberly Fornek and Jennifer Johnson Pioneer Press

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) From Lake Forest High School on the North Shore to west suburban Hinsdale Central High School, school districts are launching an ever-expanding slate of methods for preventing and addressing what some are calling dangerous levels of school-related teen anxiety.

BARRINGTON, Ill.

Claire Buckley's day started before dawn.

Each morning, she would dress, gather her gear and leave her Barrington home to catch a 6 a.m. bus to her destination, not to a job in downtown Chicago, but as a freshman in high school.

"These days we're asking of our teens what very few adults are required to do," said Claire's mother, Melissa Buckley.

After watching her normally good-natured daughter return home from school each day exhausted, Melissa Buckley joined a Barrington High School advisory committee that proposed a later morning start time for students.

After nearly two years of tweaking, the school board approved the change last year, and it kicked off in August.

This year, Claire will get an extra 90 minutes of sleep each morning.

Buckley said she hopes the later start time is a step toward alleviating teens' sleep deprivation, just one of myriad factors experts say could be fueling an uptick in student stress and anxiety.

From Lake Forest High School on the North Shore to west suburban Hinsdale Central High School, school districts are launching an ever-expanding slate of methods for preventing and addressing what some are calling dangerous levels of school-related teen anxiety.

Some of the volleys are targeted, like the move in Barrington, at proven problems. Others look to more esoteric ways at reducing stress. There are therapy dogs and meditation sessions, peer counseling and yoga classes. The only option apparently not on the table? Doing nothing.

STRUCTURAL CHANGES In addition to later start times debuting this year at schools in Arlington Heights, Barrington, and Naperville, Ill., an increasing number of suburban school boards have also adopted school calendars that more closely resemble a collegiate model, with final exams prior to holiday breaks.

The Arlington Heights-based Township High School District 214 school board also passed a new policy that will put restrictions on when coaches and other advisers can schedule practices and rehearsals, limiting them to one a day, either before or after school. Teachers will also be prohibited from assigning students homework or projects during several school breaks, including homecoming weekend and the Thanksgiving break, officials said.

It's all in service of reducing the pressure on kids and promoting a healthy lifestyle.

"If you take more AP classes, do well on your ACT or SAT and have a strong GPA, you might get into a better college, but it doesn't matter how good you are at math if you have a heart attack at 32," said David Schuler, the superintendent of District 214.

Officials at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., also changed the school calendar so students could get first-semester finals out of the way before winter break. Sarah Bowen, director of student services for Stevenson High School District 125, said the move to an 8:30 a.m. start time, from 8:05 a.m., has been met with rave reviews from parents and students who say they can begin the day with a sense of calm.

"It gives them time to connect with their teachers, connect with their friends or see people in student services if need be," Bowen said. "They have time to get some extra sleep. We are starting to see some of the positive impact."

Many school districts, including officials with Hinsdale High School District 86, are assembling community groups to study stress levels among students.

District 86 Superintendent Bruce Law said parents and students have been reaching out to him about the issue, telling him their academic anxiety is having a negative impact.

"It clearly has struck a nerve," Law said.

District 86 also changed its schedule, starting with the 2015-16 school year, so the first semester would end before the winter break. The district previously had the first semester continue into January, but parents and students said that rather than relaxing with their families during the holidays, many students were immersed in homework.

"We have known for a while that students did not get a true break," Law said.

Hinsdale South also offers a program, held once a month, that teaches AP students how to take notes, study and review in a college-level class. They also meet older students, who can give advice and share their experiences, and visit colleges where the students learn about the application process and how AP classes and scores can help with admission.

Still, Law said for many students, stress and anxiety become a problem long before they walk through the doors at Hinsdale.

"No one would believe that a student who is happy-go-lucky in eighth grade is going to be stressed as soon as he starts high school," Law added. "The lesson for us, even as we are trying to define the problem, we also have to work with elementary districts to help them put their students in the best place."

While Law talked about "levers" the district could push to lessen student stress, he questioned how parents might react to any proposed policy changes.

"Of course, we are concerned about students' health, but whether a student should take five AP classes in one semester ... I don't think it is our place to say," Law said, adding there could be some pushback if parents fear the district is "trying to water down the curriculum."

In fact, when District 214 proposed requiring students to take a lunch period, officials said some parents, students and teachers complained, saying the mandate would force kids to give up one of their elective classes.

Susan Owens, who has a junior at Hinsdale Central High School, said when she attended the introductory meeting for District 86's student stress study group, she was struck by the cross-section of students who admitted to feeling stressed.

"We have a responsibility to look at the issue and help kids lead happier and healthier lives, while still striving for excellence in education," Owens said. "People might think, kids in Hinsdale, what kinds of stress do they have, compared with the gun violence and poverty some kids in Chicago face?"

Acknowledging that families are fortunate to live in Hinsdale and attend its high-quality public schools, Owens said that when it comes to student stress, "it's real."

STATE MANDATES In Illinois, the impetus for schools playing a critical role in students' mental health dates back to the 2003 Children's Mental Health Act, which required the Illinois State Board of Education to develop standards for what's called "social/emotional learning," according to state board of education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews.

The standards don't tell schools how to teach the subject, but the state has set out what are called "competencies" that it believes students should have.

For example, goal No. 1, "Develop self-awareness and self-management skills to achieve school and life success," is intended to help students develop ways to handle stress, control their impulses and motivate themselves to overcome obstacles.

The standards let schools decide how to approach the topic but the state has developed a new accountability system that includes "climate and culture" as one of 10 indicators of school quality.

"Our new mission and vision is to crystallize the idea that we need to educate the whole child, which includes their social and emotional health," Matthews said, adding: "It's well-known that student learning and outcomes are better when students feel safe and well-cared-for."

Marni Johnson, the assistant superintendent for student services for District 214, said the state's social-emotional learning standards are incorporated in the district's counseling and instructional curriculum, "so that it is infused in everything our educators do."

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