When Newton school Superintendent David Fleishman saw the recent results of a student survey showing a spike in stress and anxiety levels at the city’s high schools, he knew pressure to get into a top-tier college was a key factor.
He also knew it was time to try to change the narrative.
So on Dec. 2, Fleishman will hold a community discussion about the book “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” written by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni.
“Maybe we can begin to create a counter-narrative for students and their families who feel like their future and self-worth depends on a yes or no from a certain group of colleges,” said Fleishman, who will host the talk at Newton South High School.
“If I can start a different discussion by helping to shift the perspective on this issue, by telling kids they’re going to be OK, they can make a mistake, that some kids excel academically much later, then I think it could be of some help,” he said.
Newton isn’t the only community grappling with the pressure students feel in today’s competitive culture. The Dana Hall School in Wellesley will hold a public forum Nov. 12 on girls and stress, Lexington High School has held stress-reduction days, and Needham, Acton-Boxborough, and Belmont schools have all addressed the issue in recent years.
While Fleishman acknowledges there are many things outside the classroom that put stress on teenagers, the pressure to take honors-level courses, outdo on every assignment, ace every test, and be a super achiever in extracurriculars just to keep their options for an Ivy League admission open, can be overwhelming.
He said he’s seen students sacrifice their physical wellbeing to maintain top grades.
“It’s frenetic, it’s pressured, and it’s unrelenting,” he said. “And inevitably it pushes some students and their families to the brink.”
Recently released results from Newton of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, administered every two years, showed that 79 percent of the city’s high school students described their lives as “somewhat” or “very” stressful, compared with just 47 percent in the city’s middle schools.
The survey is administered by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Public Health.
The share of Newton high school students reporting stress was slightly up from 75 percent in 2012, while figures remained the same in middle school.
The numbers were highest during the “crunch years” of high school, however, with 81 percent of 11th-graders and 83 percent of 12th-graders reporting their lives were somewhat or very stressful.
Fleishman said there’s no reason to believe that Newton students are under more stress than other students across the state, but that “there is little question that our students are under stress, which is why I decided to do something.”
And when he saw the difference between the figures from the high school students compared to those in middle school, particularly in grades 11 and 12, his only conclusion was that the pressure to get into “the right schools” was taking its toll.
Fleishman said the Newton schools have developed a college planning philosophy designed to support students and families.
But he is taking it a step further by using Bruni’s book, and the stories he writes about, to give the community the OK to tell students they can feel good about wherever they choose to attend college.
“Your work as a parent, your success as a parent, will not be judged by where your child went to college,” he said.
Fleishman says he’s been thinking about how to help relieve some of the stress students feel for some time, especially after the tragedies of the 2013-2014 school year when three Newton high school students committed suicide.
“I’ve learned an awful lot about suicide over these past months, and what I’ve learned is that 90 percent of the time suicide is connected with mental illness,” he said. “But I do think stress and anxiety is a very big problem, and something we can do something about.”
In thinking about the causes of stress, he was compelled to tackle the college admission issue not just by what he was seeing in Newton’s schools, but also by Bruni’s book, and from his own family.
Fleishman has ninth-grade twin boys, and already one of them has started mentioning colleges and asking if it is a good school or not.
“And so I found myself quoting Bruni’s book, and telling him that where you go is not who you’ll be, and I realized that I needed to bring this message to a larger audience,” he said.
The panel discussion will take place on Wednesday, Dec. 2, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., in the library at Newton South High School, 140 Brandeis Road. For more information, go to www.newton.k12.ma.us/bookdiscussion2015.
Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at email@example.com.