‘We’re fighting against a culture of go, go, go’: Newport-Mesa hears possible anti-stress strategies for schools

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District partnered with the nonprofit Challenge Success after the suicide of a Corona del Mar High School student in January.
(File Photo)

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District may consider changes in its curriculum and other practices after hearing a presentation from a Stanford-based nonprofit that works to help schools and families create a more balanced life for students.

“We’re fighting against a culture of go, go, go where schools are busier than we ever have been before,” Margaret Dunlap, school program director for Challenge Success, said during a special school board meeting Monday.

The organization says it has worked with more than 150 schools nationwide on strategies for curriculum, homework and school schedules.

According to its website, the group looks at school and community culture that may perpetuate students’ academic and emotional issues.

“Our current fast-paced, high-pressure culture” and “largely singular focus on academic achievement has resulted in a lack of attention to other components of a successful life — the ability to be independent, adaptable, ethical and engaged critical thinkers,” the website states. “The overemphasis on grades, test scores and rote answers has stressed out some kids and marginalized many more.”

Newport-Mesa partnered with Challenge Success after the suicide of a Corona del Mar High School student in January. The partnership also is in line with the district’s recent move to ramp up security measures.

Corona del Mar administrators emailed parents in March about the partnership. The email said parents and students would be updated on how their input would be part of the process.

Though the focus is primarily on CdM, changes the district supports can be implemented districtwide, Dunlap said.

Dunlap has met with staff at Corona del Mar, Newport Harbor and Estancia high schools about her group’s mission and steps for moving forward. She will visit Costa Mesa High later this month.

The next step is collaborating with parents at CdM.

Dunlap said a CdM team of eight to 10 people will be invited to Challenge Success fall and spring conferences in the Bay Area. A coach will help facilitate discussions and brainstorm an action plan, she said. A live report will be available for schools and parents to access.

Dunlap provided examples of changes that Challenge Success partner schools have implemented. They aren’t applicable to all, Dunlap said, and each school is encouraged to see what fits it best.

“We don’t have a one-size-fits-all curriculum,” she said.

The examples include:

  • Revise homework policies to ensure the volume is appropriate
  • Schedule “no homework” nights
  • Create guidelines for extracurricular activities, including a cap of 15 hours per week for sports
  • Eliminate summer and vacation assignments
  • Revise late work and “zero” policies
  • Modify the grading system, creating unweighted GPAs
  • Develop time management, stress reduction and relaxation techniques
  • Host “dialogue nights” in which students discuss the day-to-day demands on their time with parents and faculty

Newport-Mesa trustee Karen Yelsey said she wished leaders of the district’s teachers union had attended the special meeting since some items, including a pending proposal to start the school year earlier, would be negotiated in the union’s contract.

Britt Dowdy, president of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, said Monday that he didn’t know there was a meeting.

Board President Vicki Snell said the district could take initiative by distributing Challenge Success information sheets to parents sharing research on homework and cheating with suggestions on how to apply the findings.

“Parents are anxious to learn — they have their own stress built in,” said board Vice President Charlene Metoyer.

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