Film Offers Sobering Look into Students’ Academic Life


On Monday night, the Crescenta Valley Drug and Alcohol Prevention Coalition held a special screening of “Race to Nowhere,” a documentary examining the prevalence and consequences of stress for students of all ages. Parents, teachers, administrators and students gathered in the Crescenta Valley High Auditorium to view the film, which fostered some discussion.

Directed in 2009 by Vicki Abeles, a mother of three, “Race to Nowhere” delved into what Abeles saw as contributing factors for stress in school-age children: overscheduling, hours and hours’ worth of homework, and an educational system which emphasizes grades and test scores more than actual learning. The film compiled interviews from students, parents, teachers, psychologists and a host of others who spoke on the problems associated with school today and the bleak outlook it gives teenagers.

The students interviewed in the film echoed each other: they spend seven to eight hours in school, then spend more time on extracurricular activities, be they clubs, athletics or tutoring programs, and then stay up until late into the night finishing up their homework then repeat the entire process again and again, every day.

Abeles appeared to find a destructive cycle of pressures fueling the process: students feel pressure from their parents and schools to perform, parents feel pressure to make sure their children do the “right” things to get into the “right” colleges and teachers feel pressure to produce perfect students in order to keep their jobs.

The issue of drug abuse was not overlooked, as several students in the film attested to the use of prescription drugs to either relieve school-related stress or perform better in the case of the amphetamine Adderall, a popular choice amongst students.

Abeles paints a picture of an educational system which emphasizes results, often at the expense of the children the system is intended to serve, leaving the children depressed or worse and often disillusioned about the entire prospect of education.

After the film ended, the emcee of the evening, Howard Hakes, opened the floor to comments and questions from the audience who were eager to weigh in on the topic. Some parents voiced their concerns about their children’s school-related stress and wondered how to have “Race to Nowhere” shown at other schools (the screening at Crescenta Valley High was the first the Drug and Alcohol Prevention Coalition has held.) Others agreed with the basic tenets of the film, but felt that the necessity for being competitive for colleges made emphasizing grades and homework inescapable.

A panel made up of Dr. Skip Baker, a pediatrician who specializes in child development, Paul Royer, a social worker who specializes in aiding families dealing with substance abuse issues, Deb Beckwith, a motivational speaker who works to bring awareness to over-the-counter drug abuse in teens and Dr. Grace Hess-Quimbita, a parent and teacher who facilitated the panel, responded to questions from audience members and concurred with the audience that the amount of stress children receive these days is excessive.

“I’ve worked with kids in the community for a long time,” said Dr. Baker. “I’ve watched some of these kids grow up and watched kids fail and I’ve watched kids be successful who had failed. What they’re talking about [in the film] is real and it’s pervasive. We have gotten involved in a highly competitive means for trying to help kids with their education.”

Baker summarized the effects of stress on the brain, the bathing of the brain in the hormone Cortisol, which can lead to depression, the effects of which can be especially pronounced in developing brains, such as those of children.

“One of the problems with being over programmed is that kids don’t get a chance to adjust their life to fit their style. And kids will do that with free play, when they’re listening to music or talking with their friends. But some kids never get the chance to do that.”

“I see this in my office every single day,” Paul Royer said. “We’re forcing [children] with all this pressure to be these achievers in our way of doing it versus having them do it in their own way.”

There was a great emphasis from the panel about having an open dialogue with one’s children and staying communicative about problems at school.

“I talk to parents about this all the time. If your kids aren’t ready to go to college when they’re 18, that’s okay. Love them the same way; stop having these horrible fights night after night about grades and homework.

“The thing that struck a nerve with me was the kids talking about feeling like everyone else is ‘doing it right’ or everyone else is succeeding and it’s only me that can’t measure up. The bar is set so high, be it 4.2 or 4.3 [GPA] that kids that I talk to are always looking for a way to relax and that often leads to substance abuse,” said Deb Beckwith.

The worst case scenarios of school-related stress did not go unavoided, as Beckwith spoke about her daughter’s death from a drug overdose in 2004.

“Like many of you, my daughter was doing very well in school, she was very active in youth groups, she sang with the praise band, she was in the choir at school and cross-country. Does this sound familiar? Very active, two parent home, two sisters that loved her and everything was like it’s supposed to be.”

“Race to Nowhere” was dedicated to a 13-year-old girl named Devon Marvin, a straight A student who committed suicide after receiving an F on a math test. Devon’s mother, who was interviewed in the film, expressed having a similar supposed understanding of her daughter’s personality and feelings before her shocking death.

Although it was admitted that it would be a tall order to restructure how the country has approached education for years and years, the film, the panel and the coalition urged parents to at least keep communication open with their kids and perhaps with a collaborative effort from parents, their children, the schools and the districts, school can become more than a factory line where students produce results and rather a place that engenders a love for learning.