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On your marks, get set, stop! ÔRace to NowhereÕ aims to show ÔThe Dark Side of AmericaÕs Achievement CultureÕ

By September 21, 2010

Enterprise staff writer

Bay Area mom Vicki Abeles could see the strain in the lives of her three school-age kids as they made their daily way through school, homework, tutoring and extracurricular activities. But it wasnÕt until her 12-year-old daughter was rushed to the emergency room and actually diagnosed with a stress-induced illness, that she began to realize just how bad things had gotten.

ÒHer cheerful facade and determination to keep up had masked her symptoms to us, to her friends and to her teachers,Ó Abeles said.

So Abeles, a former New York corporate lawyer who now lives with her family in Lafayette, started making changes in her home to try to limit the stresses on her kids. She soon came to the conclusion that the pressures her children felt Òwere beyond my control.Ó

ÒIn thinking about my own childhood,Ó she said, Òit seemed that education hadnÕt changed much in the past 30 years, but todayÕs system is driven by a high-stakes, high-pressure culture … (full of) high-stakes tests and competitive college admissions.

ÒThe problem was affecting millions of kids and yet it wasnÕt being talked about,Ó Abeles said.

She wanted to know why, and began meeting with parents, teachers, students and experts in child development and education.

ÒI was stunned to learn of the soaring rates of youth depression, suicide, cheating and dropping out occurring in all types of communities,Ó Abeles said.

At some point, she picked up a camera and started recording those interviews; the end result was the documentary ÒRace to Nowhere: The Dark Side of AmericaÕs Achievement Culture.Ó

The film began showing in pre-release screenings in the East Bay, the Peninsula and in Marin County about a year and half ago. Word quickly began to spread beyond the Bay Area about this little film with no marketing budget and a staff of one (Abeles herself).

Folks all over California started calling and e-mailing Abeles, requesting screenings in their own communities. Soon the calls were coming from other states as well, and even overseas. Many Davis parents were traveling to the Bay Area and Sacramento for screenings.

Julie Cole-Marie was one of them.

Cole-Marie was born and raised in Davis, and she and her husband, JP Marie, have three children in Davis public schools. Cole-Marie also has been a teacher for 18 years and has seen first-hand the pressures kids are facing.

ÒThe stakes have become unmanageable,Ó she said.

Students are determined to get all AÕs, while also excelling in extracurricular activities, Cole-Marie explained.

ÒThey are definitely caught up in the frenzy of, ÔI have to do this.Õ Ó

And then thereÕs the sports culture, especially in a town like Davis, she noted, where Òif you havenÕt tracked yourself into a sport at a really early age, then youÕve dashed your hopes of playing in high school.

ÒItÕs exhausting to watch. IÕve seen a real shift in the last 18 years. ThereÕs almost a panic now.Ó

Seeing ÒRace to NowhereÓ sparked something in Cole-Marie.

ÒWe have amazing kids in Davis,Ó Cole-Marie said, Òbut the pressure to succeed is really hurting them. And the ramifications of the decisions some of them are making under this stress are permanent.Ó

Cole-Marie started making calls and sending e-mails, and after a whole lot of organizing and contributions from other Davis parents, she arranged a screening for Davis.

The film will be shown on Friday, Oct. 8, at 7 p.m. at University Covenant Church, 315 Mace Blvd. The screening, which will be followed by a facilitated discussion, is open to the public. Tickets can be purchased in advance at http://www.racetonowhere.com for $11.54 or at the door for $15, provided they havenÕt sold out.

Cole-Marie expects a diverse crowd of parents, teachers, students and administrators to attend the screening.

But as important as seeing the film is, she and other fans say it is the discussions that follow that are most valuable.

Ò(The film) asks important questions that we as a community should be discussing,Ó said Davis parent Cathy Farman, who saw the film last year. ÒQuestions about the demands weÕre placing on our children to perform and how we define success for our children.Ó

ÒIt doesnÕt have the answers, but it opens the discussion,Ó Farman added.

And opening discussions was AbelesÕ ultimate goal.

ÒOften in education, you hear how we canÕt make changes,Ó she said. ÒYet when you bring a school community together and you have literally 500 parents, educators and administrators all in the same room acknowledging these issues, itÕs much easier to move forward.

ÒItÕs complicated,Ó she added, Òbut itÕs not global warming.Ó

Already, changes have taken place in communities where the film screened, Abeles said. Schools have altered start times for teens to ensure they get enough sleep, reduced homework, moved to a block schedule and replaced Advanced Placement classes with classes less constricted by exam preparation.

ÒItÕs lots of small change,Ó she noted, Òbut what weÕre really looking to do is inspire a paradigm shift. I think weÕre going to make great steps in that direction. We all have a lot more power than we realize.Ó

Following the screening, facilitators will lead discussion with those in attendance. Many parents, like Cole-Marie, plan to bring their pre-teen or teenage kids Ñ and with good reason, according to Abeles.

ÒOne of the hidden benefits of students seeing it is they no longer feel marginalized or that thereÕs something wrong with them,Ó she said.

Added Farman, ÒI think itÕs a great film for parents to see with their teenagers because it will open up discussions about stress and the source of stress.Ó

For her part, Cole-Marie is looking forward to moving on to the next step Ñ Òthe Ôwhat can we doÕ step,Ó she said.

ÒWe do so much right in Davis, but we can do even more right. We have a great community, and parents and teachers want their kids to succeed.Ó

Ñ Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at (530) 747-8051 or [email protected] Comment on this story at www.davisenterprise.com

Anne Ternus-Bellamy

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