In a region where the high school experience has evolved into an advanced placement-fueled academic arms race, parents and school officials are starting to do the unthinkable: They're saying no to adolescents who want to load up on AP courses, schedule eight-period days and join the school newspaper, track team and high school band at the same time.

Instead, they're encouraging them to take honors instead of AP courses, instituting homework-free weekends and changing class schedules to give students time to breathe and regroup between subjects.

They're also attempting to reclaim high school.

"We're trying to change the atmosphere so that people understand it's better to have a well-balanced student going to a 'good fit' college, as opposed to a neurotic going to an Ivy League school," said Fran Landau, director of school counseling at Whitman.

Last fall, Holton Arms, a private girls' school in Bethesda, introduced a schedule designed to give students more time to meet with teachers outside of class as well as more free periods during the week to pursue individual interests. The school also encourages parents to delay the college search until junior year.

And to reclaim middle school.
Even middle schools are getting into the act. Thomas W. Pyle Middle in Bethesda, which feeds into Whitman, has established homework-free weekends and study skills workshops to help children become more organized and less stressed.
The positional arms race, however, is a prisoners' dilemma, and the ambitious understand the dominant strategy.

When Marcy Berger's son Andrew, a thoughtful, highly motivated college-bound student at Whitman, told her as a freshman that he wanted to take an eight-period day-- one more period than is typical -- she told him no. He went to his counselor, who agreed with Mom.

Two years later, when Andrew begged her to let him add AP English to his packed schedule, the answer was the same: No.

But that time, she lost -- a defeat she attributes to family dynamics. While she preaches moderation, her easygoing attitude is not necessarily shared by her husband or son. She relented, and Andrew got an A in the course.

That dominant strategy, moreover, is not necessarily a coordination failure. Greater prosperity for everybody can be the byproduct of greater effort by the ambitious.

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