Forcing Stressed-Out Students to Break for Lunch

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Sandy Hausman reports on how teachers and administrators at one Illinois high school are trying to help stressed-out students slow down. One proposed solution? Making a lunch break mandatory. But they are getting resistance to the idea from a surprising source — the students.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Hey, kids, you in that highly sought-after radio demographic: high school fans of DAY TO DAY. Check out this latest outrage for students at a school in Chicago. Moms and dads, teachers, guidance counselors are fretting because you work so hard to get into the best colleges that you are not having fun. So they are going to fix it--Well, we'll see--as reporter Sandy Hausman tells us from the campus of New Trier Public High School on Chicago's North Shore.

SANDY HAUSMAN reporting:

New Trier High School boasts one of the nation's best music programs. The school has won 85 student awards from Down Beat magazine, and celebrities like Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson and Chick Corea have come by to jam with the kids.

Unidentified Man #1: One, two, a-one, two three...

(Soundbite of band music)

HAUSMAN: Some of these students may pursue a career in music, but others are here in part because they think it will further their academic future. The New Trier Jazz Ensemble's Web site says, `Music majors have the highest rate of admittance to medical school,' and, `Students of the arts continue to outperform their non-arts peers on the SAT.' Students here are so driven that as many as 150 of them have no formal lunch period. To impress admissions officers, they pack their schedules with honors classes, electives and extracurriculars. Skipping lunch was necessary for senior Patrick Rose(ph) to make time for tennis.

PATRICK ROSE (Student): I just didn't have lunch sophomore year 'cause I'd come out and practice. It worked out fine for me. I didn't have any problem. My teachers let me eat during their class, so that was easy enough for me.

HAUSMAN: But teachers like Jennifer Wexler say kids can concentrate better if they're not tired and hungry.

Ms. JENNIFER WEXLER (Teacher): I think it's a really healthy thing to have a break in your day. It's a healthy thing to eat and to fuel your mind.

HAUSMAN: Wexler sat on two committees of teachers, students, parents and administrators established to find ways of helping kids use time wisely and minimize stress. One popular recommendation: Make a lunch period mandatory. The proposal has proven controversial. Junior Eric Phillips(ph) skips lunch to make time for music and theater classes. He resents the idea of being forced to stop and eat.

ERIC PHILLIPS (Student): I feel like at this age, high school students are old enough to make their own decisions, so I think that it should be up to the families and the students and not up to the government or the school.

HAUSMAN: But seniors Lizzie Golden(ph) and Mike G. O'Carris(ph) would support a rule requiring lunch.

LIZZIE GOLDEN (Student): I think it's good because with the amount of eating disorders that we have in this school, requiring a lunch is definitely a positive.

MIKE GIOCARIS (Student): I think it's a good idea 'cause, I mean, I've always had a lunch period, but I hate it when kids eat in my class. It makes me jealous.

HAUSMAN: The district will also consider launching something called the Personal Exploration Program, or PEP, an individual analysis of each student's goals and needs. That promises to be less controversial than a mandatory lunch, but New Trier Superintendent Hank Bangser says it may be even more important.

Mr. HANK BANGSER (New Trier Superintendent): The really exciting idea that's been thrust forward here is to bring together at a table like this parents, student and expert staff member to talk about what the life of that 16-year-old is all about and how better choices can be made.

HAUSMAN: Parents Burnadette Tram and Mary Hickey say that's critical. With a smorgasbord of academics and electives, from Chinese, marine biology and photography to wilderness survival and yoga, it's easy for students to overcommit.

Ms. MARY HICKEY (Parent): Students have to learn that they cannot take on everything. It's a way for them to say that there are only 24 hours in the day, and you need to get sleep in there, too. So I'm thrilled. I'm thrilled.

HAUSMAN: Hickey thinks ideas hatched here, at New Trier, could be helpful at schools around the nation and might even help some stressed out parents of high school kids. For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman in Chicago.

CHADWICK: One more thing, kids. No more radio at lunch either, though there's more DAY TO DAY after this.

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