Film about schools seen as a ‘reality check’


By Dave Schwab

Staff Writer

La Jolla parents, principals and students who saw a documentary last week about student burnout said the film burnout hit a nerve.

A father who spoke about how his middle-school daughter has been experiencing stomach pains, said, “This has opened my eyes … We definitely have to get a conversation going.”

The film, “Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture,” was shown Oct. 4 at La Jolla High’s Parker Auditorium. It follows Bay Area filmmaker Vicki Abeles’ quest to learn what would make a 13-year-old high achiever commit suicide.

The event, organized by the La Jolla Cluster Association, drew a sold-out crowd of more than 400 that included dozens of educators, from preschool teachers to college professors as well as San Diego Unified Superintendent Bill Kowba and board members Richard Barrera, Shelia Jackson and John de Beck.

Sharon Jones, who represents La Jolla Elementary School in the cluster group, agreed with a statement made in the film by a Stanford University dean who said homework is counterproductive for students past a certain point.

“She was saying there’s no evidence that homework makes a difference and actually leads to lower test scores,” Jones said. “It’s challenging the conventional wisdom that more is not necessarily better.”

The film is prompting a lot of discussion on the cluster group’s blog, with many seeking solutions to reducing homework.

It also drew a positive response from Mike Price, the area superintendent who oversees La Jolla and University City schools. In an e-mail to organizers, he wrote, “ …. how would you like to go about building on the momentum generated on Monday night? I think there were a lot of “believers” in the audience that would like to make a difference in their families and others but might need some support in overcoming the “system’s” inertia. If I can be of any assistance please let me know.”

Suzette Ledford, a La Jollan whose 8-year-old attends Ellen Browning Scripps Elementary School in Scripps Ranch, said what she took away from the film was that “one size fits all teaching doesn’t work.”

“They’re trying to force children into a box and my child thinks outside the box,” Ledford said, noting her child is already complaining of stress-related ailments.

“We need more family time,” she said. “Kids immediately go to do their homework (after school) and there’s no more time for them to be kids anymore.”

Kyle Katz, a parent of a fifth grader at La Jolla Elementary, said the regimentation of education showed in the film was what affected her most.

“Children need to play and laugh and be creative,” she said. “The essence of a child is their spirit of play. When you take that away you have a robot.”

Poignantly, Katz said she once asked a friend of her child how he was doing in school and was shocked when he replied, “They’re trying to steal my fun.”

Jillian Frager, a senior at La Jolla High who saw the film, said a lot of what was stated in the film about too much homework in school and stress on competition is true.

“I experience that — a lot of kids do,” she said.

Frager said there’s too much pressure on studying harder for college entrance exams, even to the point of hiring private tutors to “change your score.”

“I think the tests were designed to measure how smart you are naturally, not how much you can pay to alter that test score for yourself,” she said.

Dana Shelburne, La Jolla High principal, said the competition for grades and extracurricular activities and productivity is largely college-driven, and isn’t likely to change unless — or until — those demanding standards change.

“These kids are going to chase that golden ring and they’re looking around them and everybody else has the perfect resume,” he said. “That’s the conundrum we find ourselves in: Universities are the driving force behind what students who want to go to college have to do.”


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