Local educators made up much of the audience at a Thursday night screening of a documentary about public school students overwhelmed with homework and other pressures, and some said the film made them think of their own districts.
"We talk a lot in the district about this homework debate," said San Marcos Unified School District Superintendent Kevin Holt, one of five panelist who discussed the film "Race to Nowhere" after its screening at Cal State San Marcos. "Is it purposeful and meaningful? Is it reasonable in the amount and quantity?"
Panelists at the screening also included Hidden Valley Middle School teacher Mae Chaplin, CSUSM instructor Rong-Ji Chen, Vista Magnet Middle School Principal Jose Manuel Villarreal and Valley High School teacher Jannis Brandenburg.
"There's three pages worth of notes here that I happened to prepare for my staff, because I'm going to show this movie to them when they return from vacation," Villarreal said.
Unlike the more-widely distributed "Waiting for Superman," a documentary that blamed failing schools largely on uninspired teachers, "Race to Nowhere" shows students being pushed to the point of physical exhaustion to keep up their grade-point averages.
Director Vicki Abeles has said "Race to Nowhere," her first documentary, was inspired after her own daughter was diagnosed with a stress-related illness. She and her family are featured in the film, which includes students, educators and psychologists.
In the film, a girl named Allison tells of being sent to a stress center, and a boy named Sam reveals he woke up dreading to go to school. Their last names are not revealed.
Much of the film focused on an overload of homework and a push to take college-prep courses and pile on extracurricular activities in order to be accepted by four-year universities.
Ironically, some educators in the film said, students in nations with less homework often outperform American students academically, and college prep courses sometimes do little more than inflate grade-point averages without actually teaching much.
"You stuff as much as possible into your brain, and when you're done with it, out it goes," one boy in the film said. A girl in the film said she looks forward to college as a place where she will finally start learning.
A college dean in the film noted that despite the high grade-point averages required to get into schools in the University of California system, many students who excelled academically in high school must take remedial courses to bring them up to speed once they enter college.
Teachers in the film also complained that they don't have an opportunity to teach project-based learning or other activities said to instill critical-thinking skills, but instead are directed to teach students how to take standardized tests that are used to judge their school's overall performance.
Asked by an audience member how to keep passion alive in teachers, Chaplin said they should be treated as professionals and not directed to follow prepackaged curriculums.
In the audience, Escondido High School District Superintendent Ed Nelson joined the discussion and said the culture of society and the competitiveness of a worldwide workplace was adding stress to students.
"In our culture, we are so adamant about reinforcing success, and maybe not as adamant as supporting individuals and validating individuals when they fail," Nelson said about helping relieve some of that stress.
"Race to Nowhere" is not being distributed to theaters, but rather is being screened at venues that often include panel discussions. It will be shown at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Carrillo Elementary in Carlsbad, 6:45 p.m. Tuesday at Temple Adat Shalom in Poway, 7 p.m. Jan. 6 at the Dove Library in Carlsbad and 7 p.m. Jan. 12 at Rancho Santa Fe School. For ticket information, visit RaceToNowhere.com.
Call staff writer Gary Warth at 760-740-5410.