MELISSA BLOCK, host:
With college application deadlines looming, 'tis the season of high anxiety for high school seniors. Around the nation, there have been efforts to ease the pressure. But as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, getting schools and parents, and even some kids, to ratchet it down is easier said than done.
But as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, getting schools and parents and even some kids to ratchet it down is easier said than done.
TOVIA SMITH: Welcome to what you might call the calculus class formerly known as AP.
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Cause the integrals are so delightful.
Unidentified Man: Oh, my goodness. Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SMITH: It's definitely new math at this private school outside Boston, called Beaver Country Day. Gone are those fat, old textbooks and piles of advanced placement practice tests. Instead, students like Sophie Deitz are learning complicated concepts like integration by-parts by making videos about them.
Ms. SOPHIE DEITZ (Student): I want the calculus to be like, a scary monster and then we being like, super heroes. I know, right?
(Soundbite of laughter)
SMITH: It's exactly the kind of high-energy, low-stress kind of learning that Beaver administrators, like Peter Gow, were hoping for when they decided a few years ago to eliminate AP classes.
Mr. PETER GOW (Director College Counseling): I think that pressure to make sure that you had that trophy on your transcript was something that we felt wasn't necessarily that healthy for kids. It didn't seem appropriate to be playing into that.
SMITH: Gow insists his bold move hasnt hurt Beaver kids applying to college. But especially in affluent, highly educated communities, many wouldn't dare risk it given the hyper competitive, ever escalating frenzy around college admissions.
Mr. LEE COFFIN (Dean, Undergraduate Admissions, Tufts University): It is an arms race. it just keeps going up.
SMITH: That's Lee Coffin, admissions dean at Tufts University, one of the few colleges making even a small move to unilaterally disarm.
Mr. COFFIN: Now, if you step back and say, let's take a breath, the risk is that the pack runs past you.
SMITH: Colleges are under pressure to top the national rankings and look most selective, but Coffin says Tufts is now refusing to play the data game.
Mr. COFFIN: Were not trying to be holier than thou, as I say this, but I think these are ways that the colleges unwittingly poured some gasoline on the frenzy. And it all just gets a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more intense, and there are very few rewards for disarming.
Ms. VICKI ABELES (Producer, "The Race to Nowhere"): No one wants to be the first one off the treadmill, and looking at things differently.
SMITH: Vicki Abeles is a mom from California who produced "The Race To Nowhere," a documentary about kids collapsing under the pressure to achieve. The film is becoming something of a rallying point for frustrated parents, who are now pushing for change from the bottom up.
Ms. ABELES: Just last week, we had a parent get up and say, you know, at some point it comes down to civil disobedience - if a bunch of us just say: Were not having our young kids who are in elementary school do the homework, or we're going to keep them home on the test day. I think that you're seeing parents and educators feeling much more empowered.
SMITH: But for every such conscientious objector, there are other parents pushing back. In Rockford, Illinois, for example, when the school board proposed cutting AP classes, Maggie Kasicki complained it would be academic suicide for her kids.
Ms. MAGGIE KASICKI: That very much scares us. If they take this stuff away, we are definitely thinking about private school. We have to make sure our kids can get into college.
SMITH: For the most part, school administrators are just as wary about doing something as drastic as dropping APs. Bob Weintraub is principal of the public high school in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Mr. BOB WEINTRAUB (High School Principal): The reality on the ground is, you have to have AP courses on your transcript, and you have to have As and Bs in them, in order to get into these great schools. Thats just reality. So you know, it might sound harsh, but thats life. Sometimes theres stress, and so maybe this is good preparation for that.
SMITH: Instead of eliminating stress, many schools are focusing on teaching kids to better handle it - with everything from yoga classes and breathing exercises to therapy dogs, and more time for students to vent.
Unidentified Woman #1: Everyone is getting deferred, everyone.
Unidentified Woman #2: Everyone's getting deferred; that's what makes me so nervous.
SMITH: That all may help, but Beaver Country Day School senior Julia Cohen says even the most supportive schools can only do so much, since the pressure to get into a top college really comes from everywhere.
Ms. JULIA COHEN (Student, Beaver Country Day School): People automatically ask you where you want to go. And that just like - always provides more stress, and it's like, my dentist asked me. And it's just like - it just drowns you; you just like, get so eaten up by it.
SMITH: Beaver's head of college counseling, Peter Gow, agrees. The whole system is like an evil machine thats consuming kids, he says. Our school has defanged it, but only as much as any one school can.
Tovia Smith, NPR News.