After just six hours of restless sleep, 17-year-old Cassidy Brewin gets up. She grabs a smoothie, coffee, a handful of dry cereal. With a quick kiss from her mom, she rushes off to class. Between a schedule loaded with advanced-placement (AP) classes, soccer practice, a part-time job and homework that often keeps her up late, the Chanhassen High School senior knows the consequences of taking on too much.
"I've had a few mental breakdowns where I just sat and cried because I didn't know what to do first," she said. "I'm sick from the beginning of the year until spring. I've had pneumonia twice, whooping cough and bronchitis. I know it's because I get so stressed out."
The overscheduling of teenagers like Brewin has led some Twin Cities schools to intervene by imposing homework-free days, making relaxation techniques part of P.E. class or encouraging families to schedule a "night off" to spend more time together. At Brewin's school, the entire 1,500-member student body is required to take a 20-minute mental health break twice a week during the school day.
"High school has become college for a lot of students," said Chanhassen Principal Tim Dorway, who wears a bracelet with the message: "Balance. Perspective. Growth." "With their busy schedules, when are kids sleeping? They're sacrificing their bodies to get it all done. We see a lot of coffee and Rockstar energy drinks in our building."
The changes in the school came on the heels of an uptick in the number of students hospitalized for anxiety, depression and problems related to insomnia. Last year alone, three Chanhassen students fell asleep while driving, one while on the way to school in the morning.
"A lot of our kids are hurting," Dorway said. "What's the cost of trying to do everything all at once?"
Time for a break
When the bell rings at 9:36 a.m., the hallways and commons area of Chanhassen High fill with a crush of students ready to recharge. Students are encouraged to use the 20-minute break however they choose.
A group of boys play a game of hacky sack. Four girls grab coffees and giant pretzels from the snack cart. Some play "Guitar Hero" and "Angry Birds" in the media center. One student leans against a wall, eyes closed, ear buds in, listening to music.
Similar programs are being implemented throughout the metro area.
At Shakopee High School, students have a 20-minute flexible period each day when they can meet with teachers, read a book or just get their thoughts together.
"Our compulsion about scheduling every second of kids' time increases every decade," said Principal Kim Swift. "The pressures to achieve and do more are real and pervasive."
In Hopkins, a wellness committee helps students develop skills to cope with stress in healthy ways.
"High school has become kind of a pressure cooker," said Jane Kleinman, a health science teacher and curriculum coordinator for the Hopkins school district. "The stress on our kids has increased dramatically and the school environment is much more intense -- it's like it's on steroids now."
Too late to turn back?
As author of the journal "The Case of Overscheduled Children," Bill Doherty has become something of an expert on the problem. The professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota praised the Chanhassen, Shakopee and Hopkins schools for trying to ease the pressure on students.
Doherty said that some schools, mainly in New York, also are eliminating AP classes to allow students to focus on learning rather than just cramming for exams. But he acknowledges the concern that letting up could cause students to be left behind in a competitive world.
"Both sides have legitimate worries," Doherty said. "We can't turn back the clock to a more innocent era, but we can try to offset it."
Nancy Krocak, mother to a college freshman and two juniors at Chanhassen High, straddles the deepening divide.
Like many other parents, she decries the speed of life for students. "It's just the insane schedules of these kids, which of course has been insane for the parents, too," she said.
To Chanhassen's attempts to relieve the stress on students, she says: "Amen. Particularly the no-homework nights, which gives us an opportunity to spend time as a family in the same house."
Still, she knows that doing well in school, taking part in extracurricular activities and volunteering are important for kids who want to get into the best colleges. So instead of cutting back on expectations, she's tried to make sleep a priority for her daughter. And she's taken both of her high school juniors to a massage therapist.
"As parents, we're conflicted. Of course we want our kids to be successful, but at what cost?" she asked. "We've gotten onto this path and I don't know if we can get off now."
Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715