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Parents Flock To State Screenings Of Film About High Stress In Schools

'Race To Nowhere' Portrays A Test-Oriented Culture That Leaves Students Unprepared For College

Grace E. Merritt

February 26, 2011

A grass-roots film about the high pressure to perform in American schools and the toll it takes on students is quietly making the rounds in Connecticut, and parents are flocking to the showings.

The documentary, "Race to Nowhere," shows the pressure of being saddled with hours of homework and high expectations to perform well on tests, in sports, and in other extracurricular activities to build college resumes.

The film depicts an epidemic of stressed-out or disengaged kids, a culture of cheating, frustrated teachers and a test-oriented culture that leaves students unprepared for college.

The film, being released through private screenings, has been shown at dozens of schools and universities in Connecticut in recent weeks, with showings coming up next week in West Hartford, Simsbury and Danbury.

A recent screening at Avon High School sold out, and about 500 parents, principals and teachers stuck around afterward for a lively discussion. Parents complained about the hours of homework their children face each night and the expectation to enroll in Advanced Placement classes. They talked about the difficulty of trying to keep life simple for their kids while at the same time helping them compete for college.

Teachers talked about the pressure they feel from administrators and school boards who think they are doing what parents want. Former students talked about classmates who took more AP classes then necessary to get into college and were so stressed they couldn't eat or sleep.

"We need to accept our children for who they are," said Gretchen Huber, a West Hartford mother and teacher at Thompson Brook School in Avon. "We're all under a tremendous amount of pressure."

The film depicts students suffering from stress-induced stomachaches, insomnia, anorexia and cutting. A 13-year-old girl driven to commit suicide. Students cheating or taking the stimulant Adderall just to keep up.

In the film, a student says: "Everybody expects us to be doing more. Sometimes parents need to step back and say, 'You know what? You've done a really good job.' "

The film's director, Vicki Abeles, takes aim at Advanced Placement classes, which she says are designed to cover huge volumes of material to prepare for multiple-choice tests. Students often don't retain the material or learn to think critically or work collaboratively, skills needed to prepare them for college and the workplace, she said.

During the Avon meeting, Lori Leopold, a mother of six, suggested that the Avon school district do away with Advanced Placement courses to reduce the pressure on students. Other communities, including Scarsdale, N.Y., and Hanover, N.H., have taken that step.

"At college information sessions, they are saying we want to see that students have taken the most difficult classes they have at their school. If we eliminate [AP], then they won't have the option to take them," Leopold said.

After the movie, organizers took a survey and found that Avon parents worry that the quality of education is being diminished.

"The big concern seems to be that the depth of learning that our children get is compromised because of the mandates: the testing and the resume-building in high school, which really requires multiple AP [classes] and multiple exams," said Susan Rietano Davey, a PTO member who helped bring the movie to Avon.

Abeles said the film has struck a nerve.

"I think the reason there are so many reports from everywhere that the film is resonating is that a lot of people have been feeling like this for a while and felt alone," Abeles, 49, said in a phone interview from her home in Lafayette, Calif. "Everybody sees themselves in this film."

Abeles, a corporate lawyer and mother of three, said some school districts have already responded to the film's call to action. Some have eliminated AP courses to free teachers to go deeper into certain subjects. Others have changed homework policies to reflect research on the effectiveness of homework or opted not to "teach to the test," she said.

"We've also seen some start to change the students' schedule. They have gone to a block schedule or scheduling students to take only three or four academic classes at a time so they actually have time to dig deeper and have fewer classes to prepare for in the evening," Abeles said. "Some have gone to a later start time for high school students, who go to bed later and sleep later."

For information on Connecticut screenings and tickets, see http://www.RaceToNowhere.com,

Courant senior information specialist Tina Bachetti contributed to this report.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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