BERNARDS TWP., NJ - Parents faced the Board of Education this week with a plea that school officials find a way to relieve stress for township students, while a Ridge High School football player said he is among a group of students who have taken it upon themselves to address the issue of mental health at Ridge.

Any Ridge students can sign up or drop in at the new "Wellness Club," which met for the first time at 7 a.m. this past Monday, said Ridge junior Sam Lettie. So far, there are about 35 members serving on the council for the "student-driven" club, with about 150 students who said they would be interested, he said following Monday's school board meeting.

Among Monday's speakers was parent Linda Metcalfe, who said she had attended Bernards Township schools in an earlier era, and has also been substituting in the township school system.

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"A fifth grader said to me the other day that they were worried about getting into college - fifth grade!" Metcalfe said during her comments before the board and gathered crowd. 

"We are turning more and more to drugs and alcohol, even as adults, to get through stress," Metcalfe added.

New 'Wellness Club' started at Ridge

Lettie further explained following the meeting why a group of students have started the "Wellness Club."

"In light of the recent suicides in the past year, it's inevitable that something had to be done," he said.

Lettie said that students already have been working with mental health professionals and high school staff to fulfill the Wellness Club's goals. Five faculty members were at the first meeting held in the Ridge conference room, he said.

The type of activities that are planned at weekly meetings include yoga, discussions with mental health professionals, and just giving students an opportunity "to vent," Lettie said. 

Student survey planned

The students involved in the Wellness Club are planning to survey students about what causes stress for them, Lettie said when he addressed the board during the meeting. He noted that the type of stresses facing freshmen students might be different than those concerning juniors and seniors.

Lettie said the students also want to set aside places in the high school where students can relax and "de-stress," and posters where students can write about how they are feeling that day.

The group wants to "get an active pulse on Ridge High School," Lettie said.

Schools Superintendent Nick Markarian said he would welcome the student survey, and said that a major goal of the board this year has been to address mental health issues. He also said he thought the idea of creating "quiet space" at the high school is a great idea.

Noting Lettie's other request that gym classes be reinstated as a requirement at the high school, Markarian said that he doesn't disagree with the sentiment that exercise is very important in relieving stress.

However, some of the parents who spoke on Monday said that the stress that high school students are feeling begins much earlier in the township school system.

"The academic pressure to succeed begins in kindergarten," said James Vopal, who said he is the parent of elementary school children in the township, as well as a teacher.

He said that the district's imposed 15 minutes of homework per evening for children in kindergarten through grade 2 often stretches out to 45 minutes in reality.

Meanwhile, while students are in school, "You only have 15 minutes of recess," he said, adding his request that the short recess to allow young students play time be lengthened.

Another parent, Katie Ferdinand, said she had recently taken her sixth grade student to the doctor, and the child received a diagnosis of stress. "She's exhausted," she said of her daughter. "Let them sleep another hour in the morning," she said to school officials.

Another parent asked for more communication between the school staff parents at the middle school and high school level. 

Parent Jen Korn told the board that she feels as if the high school has become like a college experience, and the middle school has become like a high school. "You have kids so tied up in knots." For example, she said students feel pressured to take high school algebra at the middle school level. 

"All of my kids took algebra as freshmen -- they're fine," she said, adding that high school is "supposed to be fun. It's not supposed to be a drag."

Korn added she partially blames standardized educational requirements and testing, such as those imposed through the state Common Core standards, as well as the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing program, underway again this spring.

"Some people think it's normal for 7th graders to have tutors," she said. "That's not normal."

Korn added that it's also not normal to have high schoolers staying up until 2 a.m. to complete required homework.

Board members lauded the crowd for coming out to speak about their concerns at a board meeting. 

"This is a complicated issue," said Board Member Robin McKeon. She said there are many contributing factors to student stress, including technology changes and economic worries. The school district is not receiving much state funding, while the state imposes unfunded mandates, she noted. "The school system and staff are stressed too," she added.

"It's not just academics," McKeon said of the stresses facing students. She said that social media, sports, and families also contribute to pressures on students. 

"Everyone wants the same kinds of improvements, we just have to figure out the best ways to make some changes," said Board Member Karen Gray.

"This is a big, big problem, with many facets," said Board Member Michael Byrne. He said that academics are not only to blame, and that other activities, such as traveling sports teams, also are time consuming. Meanwhile, he said that he feels too many students are spending time on iPads and other technology, instead of being with friends. "The swings are empty," he noted.