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'Race to Nowhere' Stirs Discussion at Several Area Schools

Thought-provoking documentary creates dialogue about our educational system.

There’s a buzz in the academic community these days about a new film – Race to Nowhere.

It’s been touted as another Inconvenient Truth, and has also been compared to Food Inc. Is this just talk, or will this intense documentary about our stressed-out children become the catalyst that leads us to question all that we currently believe about the road to success in our educational system?

Schools throughout Connecticut have been signing up to show“Race to Nowhere – with many even paying the $750 screening fee up front, rather than charging audience members. In central Connecticut, the film has recently been shown at , Watkinson, and Avon High School. will be showing it this week (March 1 at 7 p.m.) and The Masters School has a showing on March 3 at 6:30 p.m. The film will also be shown at at 7 p.m. on March 29.

All screenings are required by contract with Reel Link Films to include a post-film discussion – either a panel or a question and answer session. Renbrook’s panel discussion will be facilitated by Head of School Armistead Webster, and the panel will include Louise Kellogg (Head of Renbrook’s Upper School), Christopher Brown (Coordinator of Special Services for Hamden, Conn., Public Schools), and Vanya Hamrin (Associate Professor in the Yale School of Nursing).

Webster has already seen the film, as have some other Renbrook staff members, and he said that “Race to Nowhere” has been a major topic of discussion among educators for the past several months. “Nothing in the movie was a big surprise,” Webster said. “I do think it’s good for us to watch as a community. It makes a compelling argument that we should have this discussion, and opens up a dialogue that forces us to consider whether we have structured our lives and our children’s lives in the best way,” he said.

Webster does not think the film will ignite a demand for major changes at Renbrook. “Of course it will raise questions in certain areas that we should think about, but I believe that our parent community thinks we’re doing a good job with balance,” Webster said. 

Amy Clemons, who lives in Avon and works at Renbrook, attended a showing of the film at Avon High School. “If you work in education or have young children, it’s something you should see,” said Clemons. She thinks it’s especially critical for parents of younger children to be able to focus on minimizing the stress of what’s to come. Clemons said that a long conversation followed the showing in Avon, with comments from parents who were frustrated at the amount of work their children had, as well as parents who deliberately chose to send their children to Avon’s schools because the curriculum is demanding.

Jody Ian Goeler, interim superintendent for Avon Public Schools, said that the decision was made to show “Race to Nowhere” at Avon High School based on interest from a group of parents who were looking for “an opportunity to reflect upon our community's expectations relating to competitive academic environment and external factors that foster such a landscape, such as college admissions, over-scheduling of children, etc.”

After watching the film, Goeler served as moderator for the audience discussion that followed. He said: “I think this film is provocative and does the job of a well-crafted documentary, as it makes one think and reflect on the point of view and purpose of the filmmaker. I think this documentary adds an important dimension to our public discourse related to public education.”

Goeler said that comments from the audience were “varied, thoughtful, and thought-provoking,” and believes it served the purpose of inviting discussion about the district’s strategic planning for students’ needs in the 21st Century. Audience members were also provided with the opportunity to complete an electronic survey, and although the results have not been released, Goeler said that the evening had a high approval rating, and indicated an interest in further dialogue about the subject.

Conard parent and PTO Co-president Joan Karas traveled to Darien High School to see the film prior to recommending it to the Conard community. “I wanted to see what the hype was all about,” she said. Karas found the film “thought-provoking on many levels,” and did not think it was just a slam at AP courses, which may be the impression from viewing the “Race to Nowhere’s” website. She said that the film is critical of the encouragement of students to take AP courses only to inflate their GPAs, rather than because they are interested in a particular subject.

Karas thinks that the film has several valid and important messages for parents and educators about today’s academic pressure. It questions the impact of testing on the quality of learning as well as the value of homework. It is also particularly relevant for those kids who are the first generation going to college – who may be feeling additional stress as the key to changing the fortune of their entire family.

Karas thinks that the film will be well received in West Hartford, even though the town places a high value on its extensive AP program. “I think Conard has it right by allowing anyone to take an AP course if they want to. It’s used as a positive way to spark an interest in learning,” she said.

Dr. Karen List, Superintendent for , went to see the “Race to Nowhere” when it was shown at Kingswood Oxford. “We had a discussion following the film and while the adults agreed that children are stressed with high expectations, homework, and the assumption that everyone must get into an excellent college/university, no one had ‘the’ answer for reducing stress. We agreed that the pressure comes from all fronts - home, school, peers, higher education.”

List believes that on an overall basis, West Hartford students are well-prepared for college, and although they are encouraged to take AP courses, they are also properly counseled to take a manageable course load. When asked about the upcoming showing at Conard, List said, “I am supportive of showing ‘Race to Nowhere’ because it is a springboard for dialogue and an opportunity to gain a better understanding of how all of these factors affect our students.”

More information and reviews of the film can be found on the website www.racetonowhere.com. Tickets to screenings are available through “Race to Nowhere’s” website. Tickets to the Renbrook showing on March 1 are also available at the door.

Granby Mom February 27, 2011 at 12:58 PM
The flip side is shown well in another documentary -- Two Million Minutes. It is another anecdotal movie with a particular point of view that balances Race to Nowhere. There's only so much you can or should take from these slanted movies, but if you see one, see the other for some balance.
Granby Mom February 27, 2011 at 01:05 PM
You can view the trailer for Two Million Minutes here: http://www.2mminutes.com/products/pc/viewPrd.asp?idProduct=1&idcategory=16 If Granby bring Race to Nowhere to town, let's make sure parents also see Two Million Minutes, or Bob Compton's most recent education documentary -- The Finland Phenomenon.
Heather Lovey November 30, 2011 at 02:50 PM
http://www.finlandforthought.net/2007/09/19/finland-no-longer-suicide-capital-of-the-world/
Heather Lovey November 30, 2011 at 02:54 PM
It's really more because it's really dark there, and they drink A LOT in Finland. Alcoholism is rampant. Not so much because of the school system.

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