TELLURIDE – In competitive, high-achieving high schools across America, students report they are stressed out, burnt out and over-programmed. In their pursuit to gain admission to the best colleges, students take on an overwhelming schedule that includes advanced placement classes, varsity sports, extracurricular activities, leadership opportunities and community service.
Amidst all the activity, no one seems to stop to ask: Why are these kids engaged in so many activities, and to what end?
One day, Vicki Abeles, a former Wall Street lawyer and mother of three, began questioning the system after her 12-year old daughter was diagnosed with a stress-induced condition and admitted to the hospital. Abeles questioned students, parents, teachers, school officials and child psychologists around the nation about what is driving what she termed “an epidemic [that is] creating a generation of unhealthy, disengaged, unprepared youth trying to manage as best they can.”
The result of Abeles’ investigation, the documentary Race to Nowhere, screens at the Michael D. Palm Theater on Monday, Feb. 13, at 6 p .m. (it’s free, and sponsored by the Telluride Education Association, Telluride Education Foundation, the Telluride PTSO, the Wilkinson Library, and the Palm), with a post-screening discussion, hosted and moderated by Telluride R-1 District Superintendent, Dr. Kyle Schumacher.
Schumacher, who worked in Lake Forest, Ill., before coming to Telluride, brought two screenings of the film to his former district. The film was so popular that both showings sold out in an hour, so he added two more.
In Race to Nowhere, Abeles finds that the current education system and dominant culture has “students feeling they are being pushed to the brink, educators worrying students aren't learning anything substantive, and college professors and business leaders, concerned their incoming employees lack the skills needed to succeed in the business world: passion, creativity, and internal motivation.”
The film questions where the breaking point is for adolescents and investigates just how the exercises, tests and activities that high school students are feeling pressured to take part in are benefiting them in college and in their careers.
The film’s website states that it “is a call to families, educators, experts and policy makers to examine current assumptions on how to best prepare the youth of America to become the healthy, bright, contributing and leading citizens in the 21st century.”
“The whole idea of the movie is about finding a balance,” Schumacher said. “We keep pushing and pushing, but for what? We want kids to achieve and to be successful, but how do we set up boundaries?”
According to Schumacher, to seek balance, each family and student must find what mix is right for them, and then feel supported by their peers and community in making those decisions.
“I think that you can talk to 20 people and get 20 different responses,” Schumacher said, in regards to how much work and activity is too much for high-school kids.
Schumacher did note, however, that he senses a different pattern in Telluride, in regards to the sources of stress students feel, than he did in Lake Forest. There, “I heard that it was the schools that were putting on the pressure,” Schumacher said, “but I’m not hearing here that it’s the pressure from school. It seems here it’s more that there are so many different opportunities, there are so many things that the kids are involved in.”
Schumacher reiterated the importance of reducing stress and anxiety, with students and families needing to strike a balance. In Telluride, may translate into not trying to do everything, but in making some choices, instead. In larger communities, he said, kids cannot play basketball, hockey and have a role in the play, all in one semester, like they can in a small town like Telluride, because in bigger districts there is simply too much competition for each spot.
“There is work done by Johns Hopkins that looks at the circle of family, community and school,” Schumacher explained. “When those are aligned perfectly, with the child being at the center and the child balanced, then anxiety is lessened and the child is successful.
When those things are not in line, they cause anxiety and pressure.”
Schumacher said that watching Race to Nowhere and engaging in conversation afterward is a good first step toward recognizing the causes of the anxiety that affects students, teachers and parents in this high-stakes-testing era that often determines a school’s, and a student’s, success.
Schumacher encourages audience members to look at the issues through multiple lenses and ask themselves, whether they are a teacher, parent or student, how they might be impacting this “hamster wheel” component of student life, and what they can do to help each constituency achieve a healthy, sustainable balance.
Race to Nowhere screens at the Michael D. Palm Theater on Monday, Feb. 13, at 6 p.m., and is free to all.