Jewish Journal

Students and learning suffer in ‘Race’

by Rachel Heller

Posted on Oct. 6, 2010 at 9:39 am

When Jasmine Jafari sat down to write her college application essays this fall, she was gripped by a troubling fear.

“What am I supposed to write? ‘Hi, I’mNo. X on your list, and there are 50,000 other applicants just like me — but here’s this quirky, charismatic story that sums up why I’m different and why you want me as a student,’ ” Jafari, a senior at Santa Monica High School, said to a roomful of her peers at the school in late September.

In the rush to cram in Advanced Placement classes and extracurricular activities — to “grind myself into the ground,” Jafari said, churning out work throughout her high school career — she hardly had time to figure out who she was.

Her story is a symptom of a deep-rooted problem in today’s educational system, according to the new documentary “Race to Nowhere,” the film Jafari and crowds of local parents and teachers had gathered to watch. The high-pressure, test-heavy “achievement culture” that college-bound students are funneled into, filmmaker Vicki Abeles says, is creating a generation of stressed-out, burned-out kids unprepared for higher learning and the world beyond.

Abeles, a Bay Area attorney and Jewish mother of three with no prior film experience, felt compelled to get behind the camera when she saw what her own children were going through managing their school work.

In the film, we watch as Abeles’ son Zak, then in third grade, and daughter Jamey, then in seventh, slog through up to six hours of nightly homework that render quality family time all but moot. Both complain of headaches, stomachaches and anxiety. Jamey suffers panic attacks and slides into depression.

“I felt frustrated and alone because of what my family was experiencing,” Abeles said recently by phone. “As I started speaking to educators, parents and other students in all different kinds of communities, I came to understand that we were part of this epidemic.”

Teachers and parent groups across the country have increasingly been railing against the deluge of homework that zombie-fies children, robbing them of sleep, playtime and their natural zest for learning.

But it isn’t just homework. Shuttling between school and the myriad extracurricular activities that make college applications shine, dozens of teens interviewed in the film say they sacrifice their personal well-being daily just to keep up with all the demands on their time. A “race to nowhere” is how one high school student describes the mad rush to achieve, which serves as practice, many experts said, more for the perfect college application than for the college experience itself.

“We didn’t meet a single kid who wasn’t impacted in some way — whether it was a health problem, or they were becoming disengaged from school, or cheating, or not prepared for college,” said Abeles, who produced and co-directed the film with editor Jessica Congdon. “One of the side effects of this film is that it’s letting young people know they’re not alone.”

“Race to Nowhere” is now being screened around Los Angeles at schools and houses of worship. Its narrative is bound to hit a nerve.

An Oakland girl talks about being hospitalized for anorexia she developed while trying to juggle a private-school course load, activities and Hebrew school. Many other kids in the film admit to relying on caffeine or ADD drugs just to stay afloat.

And then there’s Devon, a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide after getting a bad grade on a math exam. Her mother, in a tearful interview, says she still can’t fathom the pressure that was eating her daughter alive — about which she never let on, even to her family.

A cadre of psychologists, educators and authors in the film condemn the competitive, performance-obsessed school atmosphere that wrings the vitality out of students.

And it’s not just the quantity of work, Abeles points out — it’s also the quality.

Kids and teachers complain that the standardized tests students are perennially cramming for don’t measure right-brain talents like artistic flair and creativity. Pivotal adult skills like critical thinking, group problem solving and social advocacy — all highly sought in modern workplaces — are often squeezed out of classroom instruction by lists of facts to memorize for the next test.

How did we get to this point? Abeles and Congdon touch on a variety of sources, from the federal No Child Left Behind Act to parents’ fears about whether their children can stay competitive in the global economy. One thing that’s clear is that change has to come from the bottom up.

Picture this: A mother picks up her son from school and instead of asking what grade he got on his history test, she asks, “What did you find exciting in class today?” That’s how conversations go in Abeles’ home now, she said, and her kids are healthier for it.

“There are lots of opportunities for young people to learn that don’t necessarily occur while sitting at a desk,” Abeles said. “Watching a news program together as a family and talking about it, or going out in your backyard and collecting bugs — there’s value in those things.”

Screenings of “Race to Nowhere” will be held at Oakwood School in North Hollywood on Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. and at Corpus Christi School in Pacific Palisades on Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. For more infor-mation or to host a screening, visit racetonowhere.com.

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