'Race to Nowhere' film highlights stress students face in high-pressure academics

Documentary film attempts to show the pressures faced by American schoolchildren and their teachers.
By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 1:43 PM

It was as if their private worries had come to life on screen: Teenagers so pressured to get A's, to fill their college resumes with sports and music and language, they start losing their grip. Long nights of homework leave them exhausted. Stress becomes stomach pain and anorexia and depression. Some turn to cheating or pills. Others just give up.

Riveted to this disturbing tableau were 325 parents and educators, including Elise Browne Hughes, 46, who wiped away tears one recent evening in Bethesda while watching the documentary "Race to Nowhere," which is becoming a growing grass-roots phenomenon in the achievement-minded Washington area and beyond.

"It's in the culture, and it kind of feeds on itself," said Hughes, a mother of two sons who paid $10 for a ticket and braved the heavy rain to watch the film at Walt Whitman High School.

For her and thousands of others nationwide, the film has raised difficult questions about how to raise well-adjusted children at a time when schools seem test-obsessed, advanced classes are the norm and parents worry that their sons and daughters will not go as far in life as they have.

One teacher in the film put it this way: "You have a fear from the parents that my kid needs to be able to get a job. Okay, I got them in the accelerated program; that's the first step. But now they need to perform and compete so they can get into a good school, and it's out of love. It's out of concern. It's out of fear. It's out of all these things that parents normally have, but it ends up turning kids into little professionals."

Nationally the film is playing as a quiet counterpoint to the better-known "Waiting for 'Superman,' " which focuses on failing urban schools. "Race to Nowhere" explores a different problem, the strains of competing in a pressure-packed academic culture that is highly test-driven and pushes some students to the edge.

The film is attracting notice from New York to California, where mom-turned-filmmaker, Vicki Abeles, a 48-year-old lawyer, launched the documentary project as she set out to understand the stresses her children, now ages 16, 14 and 11, were experiencing.

One daughter had become physically sick as she struggled with the demands of school. Then, several months into Abeles's effort, a teenager in her community committed suicide after getting a failing math grade, a tragedy Abeles says intensified her commitment to making the film.

"I think there is tremendous pressure on all kids to get the grade, to get the test score ... which is creating an epidemic of unhealthy kids who are also arriving at college and at the workplace unprepared," Abeles said in an interview.

'Why are we doing this?'

More than 500 screenings are expected this fall, including theater runs in such places as Peoria, Ill., and Oakland, Calif. In the Washington area, it has played at a Bethesda movie house, at Walt Whitman High School, at private schools in Baltimore and Upper Marlboro, and at the D.C. Jewish Community Center in Northwest Washington.

"Word of mouth spread, and people who weren't here wanted to know, 'Where can they see it and how can they show it to their kids,' " said Susan Barocas of the Jewish Community Center, who said she shared the enthusiasm. "I'm the mother of a 14-year-old, and it so spoke to me."

Each screening ends with an audience discussion, as it did last week in Whitman's school auditorium.

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