Many high-performing schools, including The College Preparatory School in Oakland, are helping students unwind from the rigors of academics and the pressures of teen life.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Julietta Camahort was immersed in a moment of nearly Zen-like tranquility as she used pen and colored markers to create her own mandala — an intricate geometric composition, made up of radiating circles, arches, petals, and spirals — that has long-symbolized to ancient cultures the universe’s infinite nature and the cycle of life.
And in that moment, the high school freshman’s immediate concerns — an upcoming Spanish test and other class projects — along with the rat-tat-tat of everyday stressors in teenage life seemed to evaporate for a while. “It gives you time to unwind when you’re mentally tired,” she said. “It’s just kind of a time to center yourself and let your mind go.”
The class she was taking that morning, Meditative Mandala, is one of an eclectic mix of more than 100 elective classes that The College Preparatory School in North Oakland offers each semester, nearly every Wednesday morning for 50 minutes, as part of the private school’s Common Classroom program. In its third year, the program is aimed at giving its students a taste of the love of learning for its own sake without the pressure cooker of test scores or grades for its students. A nationally ranked school, College Prep has an enviable track record of getting its graduates into Ivy League schools. And Common Classroom is one of many programs that the school has launched to help students get a respite from the stresses and anxieties of its academically rigorous college-prep curriculum, said Steve Chabon, College Prep’s dean of students.
College Prep and other high-performing schools in the East Bay are also attempting to counteract other societal pressures on students these days, from social media to the internet and 24-hour access to information. High school administrators report they’ve seen a surge in the number of anxious, depressed, and overwhelmed students. And hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers over the last 10 years have doubled, with the highest rates occurring soon after they return to school each fall, researchers say.
College Prep also attempts to address both the academic and socio-emotional aspects of students’ development, in an effort to educate the whole child, Chabon said. In addition to holding annual outdoor retreats for each grade aimed at class bonding, creating joyful moments, and teaching life skills, the school has open-mic assemblies twice a week, during which students can share whatever they choose to the community.
The school also has a robust advising program that starts off by allowing groups of 10 freshmen to get together on a regular basis to talk about the transition to high school and includes meetings at every grade level with individually assigned advisers twice a month. The school also has shifted class scheduling to reduce students’ homework load and give them more time for free and unscheduled study and play, Chabon said.
What’s most unique about Common Classroom is anyone can pitch a class or a topic for a class and teach it — whether a teacher, staffer, student, or alumni, explained Preston Tucker, who helped devise the program and is the school’s director of curricular innovation and research. Students also have the freedom to choose which classes to take, from week-to-week, allowing them to follow their own passions and interests.
In one corner of campus on a recent Wednesday, a group of students and teachers gathered around, with sketchpads and colored charcoals, to sketch orchids in a Zen Drawing class that focuses on the art of nature journaling and is led by English teacher Jeff Peterson. Others huddled together for English tea and snacks, in one of the program’s most popular offerings, a class taught by English teacher Richard Cushman that’s called Tea and Sympathy. It seeks “to cultivate a sense of civility and gentility” and allows its participants to converse about whatever they wish. Still others opted to fill in coloring book pages while listening to a podcast on animal rights or take a student-led classes like Bob Ross and Chill, in which attendees are invited to bring a sketchbook or paints or just sit back and watch TV artist Bob Ross as he creates landscape paintings in minutes.
There are also classes in table tennis, role-playing games, crocheting, and knitting, but it’s not just about having fun or pursuing hobbies. Some classes allow teachers or students to learn about pet topics like French graffiti artists or discuss current events or even brush up on their advanced trig.
Maggie McCullough, a senior, was helping to lead a Feminist Recap class that day, too, delving into the impact of the #MeToo movement and the women’s marches. “School can be a stressful environment, but this is a time you can have a break in the day, where you can do nearly everything from watch Bob Ross videos to discuss the political climate,” Maggie said. “And I think de-stressing means different things to different people. So, for some people, they want to color and just listen to podcasts, and that’s how they de-stress. And for other people, for instance, for me, especially during the election, it was very helpful for me to be able to talk about what was happening with others who shared similar concerns about equality.”
Pressure on students has intensified over the years as the college application process has become more competitive and high stakes. The same student who might have applied to three to five colleges a few decades ago is now feeling the pressure of applying to upward of 30, and rather than get a test prep book to study for the ACT or SAT, are feeling the need to hire a tutor to keep up with everyone else in their pursuit of the highest test scores possible, Chabon said.
Arlene Hogan, head of the school at Bentley School, a private school with campuses in Oakland and Lafayette, said the schools have added daily flex or free time, during which students can do homework or visit their teachers so they have the opportunity to “exercise their own agency.” All students are also counseled not to overextend themselves.
Although he can rest easier this semester having learned that he got into Cornell University on early decision, College Prep senior Sasha Milton said he still recalls how stressful high school could get, especially during his junior and the first semester of his senior year, as he juggled preparing for the SAT and ACT with college application demands with a work-intensive course load and involvement in three sports — cross-country, basketball, and baseball — plus practicing classical piano.
“When I think about my second semester junior year, it’s not that I was sad or anything, but it felt dark and kind of patched in,” he recalled. “I had so much work to do, and there were no breaks.”
But his decision to teach a Common Classroom course in classic rock with sophomore Brian Harris, which they dubbed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, gives them something to look forward every week. The class explores the works of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and other music legends. “It was a way to relax and to nerd out and tell funny stories about classic rock,” he said. “It was a way to really focus on that can totally take my mind off the other school work I had to do.”
Milton’s class is also a testament to the power of communal spirit of learning. On a recent visit, it was packed with an audience of more than 20 students, as well as an art teacher, many of whom seemed mesmerized by YouTube music clips of some of Woodstock’s most powerful performances. Among them was a video of a brash and electrifying performance of the national anthem by Jimi Hendrix, which Milton compared to the modern-day trend of athletes and others taking a knee during the National Anthem.
During the class, which was in a chemistry classroom filled with flasks and Bunsen burners, kids had their feet propped up on desks or were sitting with legs-crossed, and there were even a couple of girls who sat in the center of class, watching and hugging each other, as if they were re-creating the moment of peace, love, and understanding that was central to Woodstock.
Chabon said it’s critical, especially these days, to give students permission to not only pursue their passions but build unity with their fellow classmates as well as “play and be playful.” And that’s why at least once a month the school also plans events designed to bring joy to its students, through talent shows, spirit days, assemblies, and dances to build a network of different ways to relieve student anxiety and stress.
“We want to make sure that our students realize that high school is not just a stepping stone to college,” he said. “And we really want them to make the most of the experience, because we emphasize to them, you are going to change so much in these four years between age 14 to 18, that you are going to come out almost a completely different person than you came in. So, let’s try to enjoy this ride together. It’s not about tomorrow. It’s about today.
“We really want to create these live moments to blow off steam and bring happiness for our kids whenever we can,” he added. “We really want to just highlight having joy in the moment — and not just joy in hindsight, where they are thinking back, ‘Oh, that was fun.’”