Race to Nowhere film highlights the time-consuming, stress-inducing nature of high school in the United States, an issue with which the UA community has been dealing for years

By Ceri Turner, ’12

Sophomore Grace Tucker’s feet are among the last to rush through the doorway into her first period AP American Studies class. Her backpack, slung over one shoulder, has begun to slip down her arm under the weight of the half dozen books and binders stowed inside. She hasn’t yet found a spare moment to visit her locker, so in addition to her bulging pack she has a black duffel bag loaded with her crew and dance gear. She left her viola behind in the orchestra room after her Chamber rehearsal earlier that morning.

Tucker hikes her backpack straps more securely over her shoulders before crossing the room and, in one practiced movement, swings both the backpack and the duffel to the floor and collapses into her desk. She casually brushes her hair behind her ears, unzips her backpack, grabs her American Studies binder and her pencil pouch and settles down to another long day of instruction, occassionally taking the time to doodle in her notebook.

“I do have a pretty strict schedule, and I tend to run crazily from one activity to another,” Tucker said.

Tucker’s hectic schedule causes her to give up the time that she might otherwise reserve for recreation or other non-school-related activities.

“My number one priority always ends up being school, which is not always the fun thing, but it helps me make sure I get everything done and I continue to excel,” Tucker said. “If I have to go to the LC or Math Lab for lunch, it’s what I have to do.”

Tucker is just one of thousands of students nationwide whose minutes are meticulously scheduled, whose days are achingly organized and whose weeks, months and years are all aiming for one thing—a trend which students, teachers and parents nationwide are beginning to recognize. This was the purpose of the documentary Race to Nowhere, which teachers as well as interested students and parents viewed in January.

According to the film, school today is no longer about learning. It is all about preparing for college applications, so Tucker and others like her can grow up, get a good job, earn enough money and live a happy life. Or at least that is today’s expectation.

• • •

Among parents concerned about the direction of education in the United States is Vicki Abeles, a mother turned filmmaker whose concern for the mental and emotional well being of her own children blossomed into a passion to change the educational system and American culture. After talking to experts, students, parents and teachers across the country, Abeles decided the best way to raise awareness on a large scale was to create a film that captured some of these students’ stories and the underlying issues.

“I was determined to give voice to those on the front lines of education—students and teachers,” Abeles said.

These voices came together in Abeles’ film, Race to Nowhere.

“[Race to Nowhere] points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired,” the film’s website said.

Since its production in 2009, Race to Nowhere has been screened in hundreds of locations, including over 70 theaters and schools. Among those schools is UAHS, where on Jan. 19 over 300 parents, students and educators came together to view the film and discuss the issues.

“[The film] raised a lot of concerns, both as a parent and as a principal, about the demands that are sometimes placed on students,” principal Kip Greenhill said.

These so-called demands are often vague and hard to define; the majority of the time, purely academic activities are the assumed culprit. With this hypothesis, the blame falls on schools, and in reality, that is simply unrealistic.

“It’s not just homework,” Greenhill said. “It’s participation in extracurricular activities; music, athletics, dance, a lot of different things, and some of them not even school related.”

Race to Nowhere trumpets that students are living in a veritable circus of commitments. America’s high school students are funneled from one grade to another, not learning information as much as briefly retaining it. Burdened by the pressures of their schools and the demands of their parents, both obsessed with image, students spend the tail-end of their childhood consumed by stress. Within this culture, school becomes less about learning and growing than the creation of an idealized self—all good grades, great test scores and community service—intended to optimally impress college recruiters. The film gives the impression that students today are struggling to maintain their sanity in the midst of all of these activities.

According to Greenhill, there is simply not enough time for students to participate in everything.

“You have to have balance in your life; you need down time for yourself,” Greenhill said. “Everybody in our society… we get over committed and overprogrammed, and it’s not healthy.”

• • •

In 1980, the average junior would take Algebra II, Biology I, a junior-level English course and the third year of their foreign language. A student looked at half a dozen colleges, and the search itself was not addressed until late junior year. According to college counselor Mark Davis, when the student finally did apply to college, both the competition and the scene itself were almost unrecognizable.

“The expectations of the highly selective schools, the competition, it was nothing like it is today. It’s day and night,” Davis said. “Part of it is size of population, and another part is that electronic aspect; students can now apply to more colleges much easier.”

The Common Application set a new single-day record on Dec. 31, when students submitted 127,175 applications.

“Those highly-selective schools [are] looking for a student who is unique and different, who has wonderful test scores, who has an A transcript, [and] has taken every competitive course that they could,” Davis said. “They’re looking for those kids that are in the top two and three percent of our society, those kids that can manage all that and have a life.”

For the other 97 percent of students, life is simply not that easy. Parents, students and teachers alike get caught up in the admissions process.

“In UA, we think that everyone is in that top two percent,” Davis said. “We should come back and realize [that] that’s a small portion of our student body.”

Largely due to the administration’s consistent recommendations that students take AP and IB classes, many students believe that such a schedule is necessary for success. Junior Kevin Yuh came to the highschool with a similiar mindset.

“I thought that I didn’t work hard enough in middle school, and that I really had to step it up in high school, now that it counts,” Yuh said. “I tunnel-visioned into academics and didn’t make the social connections I could have.”

Over time, however, Yuh has tried to manage his priorities and avoid overscheduling. Still, Yuh does not claim to be without stress.

“A lot of stress comes from yourself worrying too much,” Yuh said. “Teachers have high expectations, parents have high expectations, and when you’re in danger of not meeting those expectations you get stressed out.”

• • •

The world Race to Nowhere presents is unforgiving—students are expected to perform and produce, but are not given time to play. Although the film leads viewers to believe that this hypercompetitive environment is the norm, here at UAHS it may be more of the exception. Instead of getting wrapped up in the competition itself, students here motivate themselves.

“Everyone gets motivation from different places,” Yuh said. “When you’re young, it’s from your parents and when you’re older it’s from yourself.”

For Tucker, it is her own perfectionism that fuels her drive to succeed.

“I definitely pressure myself,” she said. “Just having people around me that are in advanced classes and working hard and getting good grades, that motivates me to do better and try harder. I push myself a lot.”

Race to Nowhere suggests that schools assign an excess of homework producing stress, cheating, cramming and an environment in which students learn facts to pass tests before forgetting it all the next day.

Some, though, believe that the problem that some students have gets projected onto the entire student population.

“We only hear about it when it becomes extreme,” counselor Mary Anne Nyeste said. “We don’t hear from all the people that think the amount of homework is just fine.”

But to Greenhill, the fact that some students experience this, or according to Abeles, many students, is concerning.

“That’s the point of having these discussions and showing the film,” he said.

Race to Nowhere cites dozens of kids, parents and teachers who give testament to the consequences of over-scheduling kids—addressing everything from lack of sleep and disinterest in learning to panic attacks and suicide.

“Most of the time the stress becomes directly related to time management more than the actual commitments that they’ve undertaken,” Nyeste said. “A lot of times we say yes to things and then we try and figure out how we’re going make it all work. We need to reverse that process.”

• • •

For some kids, this balance between commitments is effortless and, as a result, high school is manageable. One such student is sophomore Ben Kompa. Kompa is enrolled in several honors and AP classes and participates in a variety of extra-curricular activites. Despite these commitments, Kompa still finds time to relax and is simply not the type to stay up late studying. Instead, he uses his time wisely at school.

“On my busiest days, I do homework until eight,” Kompa said. “I usually do everything for points at school, and at home I’m just studying or practicing, so I can just stop working.”

Freshman Grace Saalman, a girl with aspirations to become a doctor, is another UAHS student for which this balancing act is second nature. Saalman’s secret to success is simple—she, too, has excellent time management skills and manages to balance her athletics, music and academics exceedingly well.

“I set a time for my extracurricular activities and then I have a certain time in the evening where I reserve that for my homework, and then after that I have an hour where I do my music,” she said.

Students like Saalman and Kompa handle their workloads almost effortlessly.

“[These students] absorb knowledge from a classroom instantaneously, they go home, they do a couple hours of homework, and they’re fine,” Davis said. “Then you have another student who goes home and works for seven or eight or nine hours to achieve the same thing, and when that happens it’s unhealthy.”

There are students like Saalman and Kompa, but there are also students who fundamentally do not have the capacity to handle so many activities.

“There are some people who can handle all kinds of pressure and stress, and for other people it takes just the slightest amount [and there are consequences],” said Greenhill.

These are the students that provide the basis for Race to Nowhere, plain and simple.

• • •

Every student is different, with different personalities, different passions, different aptitudes and different weaknesses. These kids have different dreams and aspirations, and, because of this, are on different paths that will hopefully lead to the fulfillment of these aspirations. College counselors like Davis are available to help students reach these goals.

“Every family has to look at their own situation, their student’s desires, and try to evaluate where the student is compared to the whole college process,” Davis said. “The film really did focus in on students who were having various types of difficulties with schools and maybe with expectations of a family that were much higher than a student’s capabilities.”

Greenhill said he hopes to apply this same concept on a larger scale in an effort to improve the situation here at UAHS. The first step of Greenhill’s three-step plan was the film showing in January, which was designed to raise awareness in the community.

“We took a very major step by showing that video,” Greenhill said. “It’s a wake up call that parents, students and also the school need to look at balance in people’s lives.”

Next, the administration distributed a survey March 16 in an attempt to evaluate the opinions of students and extract their own personal feelings about their school experience. The data collected will be tabulated and then, hopefully by early April, the development of organized discussions can begin.

“I want to have a team of parents, teachers and students sit and talk about the school climate,” Greenhill said. “Are we spreading [students] out too thin?”

• • •

Administrators are quick to point out the opportunities that students at UAHS have. They have AP courses, IB courses, honors courses, art, music, theater, family, consumer sciences courses and a wide variety of sports and clubs available to them every day.

“My role is to help every student balance that tightrope; to be challenged enough without being stressed,” Nyeste said. “On one hand, we want our students to take advantage of all the wonderful opportunities, but on the other hand we don’t want to be spreading them so thin that they can’t make a difference anywhere!”

Tucker, looking back, said she has no regrets about committing to all of her activities; however, she does have advice for other students. She urges kids to make sure they always have time for themselves.

“Pick one thing, maybe two things, that they really love and take courses that they’re interested in and that they think will challenge them,” she said.

Balance can be achieved. It is not impossible. However, it is going to take effort.

“I just hope that our kids here will find some way to balance life and not get too overly hyper about the whole process,” Davis said. “To still find time to be kids, to still have fun… I think that’s the most important thing.”

High school students are, after all, only high school students once.

“Carpe diem, seize the day!” Yuh said. “High school is only what you make of it.”