Educators, parents and students reflect on the 'Race to Nowhere'

By Martha Marteney - Staff Writer
South Windsor - posted Thu., May. 12, 2011
South Windsor High School Principal Dan Sullivan introduces the panel members at the screening of the 'Race to Nowhere:' SWHS English department chair Dave St. Jean, Timothy Edwards Middle School psychologist Michelle Wardwell, SWHS guidance counselor Bob LaRochelle, and Albertus Magnus College Admissions Director Corey Schmidt.  Photos by Martha Marteney.
South Windsor High School Principal Dan Sullivan introduces the panel members at the screening of the 'Race to Nowhere:' SWHS English department chair Dave St. Jean, Timothy Edwards Middle School psychologist Michelle Wardwell, SWHS guidance counselor Bob LaRochelle, and Albertus Magnus College Admissions Director Corey Schmidt. Photos by Martha Marteney.

On Wednesday, May 11, the South Windsor High School Parent Advisory Council hosted a screening of the documentary "Race to Nowhere" in the high school auditorium. More than 150 community members opened the dialogue on stress factors in today’s youth.

PAC Co-President Jodi Oliver suggested the showing, saying, “It’s something I always felt was important.” She first saw the film when it was screened in West Hartford.

At face value, the film is about students feeling stressed, not having enough time to do homework, sports and extracurricular activities. At a deeper level, though, the film considers the negative consequences of setting such high expectations on students that they no longer have time to enjoy childhood and to learn the skills necessary to be successful in life. It asks, “Can we end this race to nowhere?”

“I think the film’s message is to evaluate what you do and to be sure of what’s important to you,” said SWHS Principal Dan Sullivan. Seeing situations as both an educator and a parent, Sullivan said it is easy for the student to overextend, leaving no time to “be a kid” or to be with one’s family.

“I think it’s a wonderful conversation starter,” said Bob LaRochelle, a SWHS guidance counselor. “It raises questions about the emotional side, as well as the goals of education.” He sees both students who are stressed out and those who really benefit from their involvement. “It’s all about balance,” he said.

The film’s producer, Vicki Abeles, saw the emotional and physical impact that school-related stress was having on her children. When a local teenager committed suicide, Abeles began looking at the bigger picture. The film considers the various pressures felt by students, parents and educators, and challenges the viewer to reflect on his own expectations and goals.

Topics in the film include sleep deprivation, parents wanting a better life for their children, students wanting to please their parents and teachers, gaining admission into a top-level college, cheating, use of caffeine and other stimulants and the overall question of the purpose of education.

According to the film, many of the underlying factors creating the stress are related to successful college admission, or “getting into a good school.” Current demographics and the for-profit nature of many institutions have made it increasingly difficult for even the top students to gain admission into their school of choice. There is pressure to build both a strong transcript and a résumé of extracurricular activities in order to set the student apart. With all these time demands, the student forfeits the all-important “down time,” as well as sleep. One student in the film said, “We do this to get into a good college to get a good job so we can be happy. But if we’re not healthy, what’s the point?”

Many questions about the current educational system were raised. Both students and educators in the film agreed that success under the testing structure of “No Child Left Behind” is best achieved by reiterating without understanding. Critical thinking skills are de-emphasized, while achievement and test scores are valued. The film implies that there is no time left in the school day for innovative thinking, a critical skill for productive workers, successful parents and engaged citizens.

Tying this all together is the societal pressure to not only accept, but to be happy, that success in Americais determined by how much money one makes. Students and parents have bought into the concept that to be successful, i.e. be rich, one has to go to a good college. As one person in the movie said, though, “The world is run by C-students,” and few CEOs actually graduated from top schools.

The film did not provide as many answers as it raised questions. At the end of the film, there were several lists of suggested actions that could be taken by students and adults. Some sounded simple, such as getting enough sleep, but if the students feel overwhelmed by time demands, a good night’s sleep may not seem an option. To view these lists, visit the website endtherace.org/what-individuals-can-do-today.

After the screening, audience members were encouraged to submit questions to the panel group, comprised of SWHS English department chair Dave St. Jean, TimothyEdwardsMiddle Schoolpsychologist Michelle Wardwell, Albertus Magnus College Admissions Director Corey Schmidt, LaRochelle and Sullivan. It was noted that several of the panel members have been coaches. SWHS Associate Principal Tiffany Violette served as the moderator.

“As a parent,” said St. Jean, “I’m concerned, and I guess that’s why we’re all here tonight.” While he said he does not want to see kids being lazy, he feels the students should be involved in those things that they have a passion about. As the SWHS boys’ soccer coach, he tries to teach the team members to focus only on soccer during practice time. If a boy feels too overwhelmed to concentrate on soccer, then he has too much going on in his life.

“This movie brings to light a lot of good points, but the take-away is balance,” said Wardwell. “What’s the best fit for your student, your child, your family?”

“We need to be engendering a passion for learning,” added LaRochelle, noting that competition may be endangering the student’s ability to find what is truly interesting to that one individual.

From the college admissions perspective, Schmidt said that she can see when a student has built a résumé rather than formed a passion for something. When the need to do more builds anxiety, the student loses the enjoyment for learning and doing.

“It touched my heart,” said Dan Hansen, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. “We can’t help them reach their potential if we don’t reach their hearts.” One of the positives he sees at the SWHS is the range of course offerings to provide the variety that the students need. “I’m proud South Windsoris having this conversation,” he said.

At the end of the evening, Sullivan said, “We have to sit down and help them make the right choices,” adding that the students need to also feel that they have the right to say “no” to trying to do it all.


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