EDUCATION MATTERS: Boiling a frog slowly

Marsha Sutton
Marsha Sutton

By Marsha Sutton

Contributor

Who was it who said it’s a shame to waste a good crisis?

The popularity of the independent film “Race to Nowhere” would seem to indicate that its theme has touched a raw nerve. We may be witnessing the emergence of a long-buried, newly-unearthed crisis in secondary schooling that has been plaguing children for years.

Wasting the momentum and outrage this film has generated would truly be a lost opportunity to restore some measure of sanity back to our high schools.

“Race to Nowhere” skillfully, and depressingly, highlights the world of highly competitive high schools, over-achieving students, demanding parents and limited college access – all of which combine to create stressed-out kids who often suffer from physical and mental ailments. Throw in a healthy handful of cheating, substance abuse, sleeplessness, eating disorders, bullying, self-mutilation and even suicide, and we have all the ingredients needed to serve as a catalyst for a decent revolution.

“Race to Nowhere” hit its target market with recent showings at La Jolla High School, Canyon Crest Academy and Del Mar Hills Academy, where every screening was sold out. And still there are many, many parents with children of all ages clamoring to see the film.

The problems are not isolated in the public school arena but also exist in full force in private schools such as Cathedral Catholic, San Diego Jewish Academy, Santa Fe Christian, La Jolla Country Day and The Bishop’s School – where a highly competitive college-going culture has their students running the same manic race.

At a panel discussion held last week after the showing to a sold-out crowd of about 400 people at Del Mar Hills, questions and comments from audience members indicated a somber understanding of the depth and complexity of the situation. The questions left me both hopeful and despondent.

One parent commented, to the audience’s general agreement, that where we attended college years ago makes little difference once reaching adulthood. But it does matter to the kids when they’re in their environment – just ask them about the buzz when acceptance and rejection letters start arriving in March. It’s a frenzy, to find out who got in where and who didn’t. They compare and talk among themselves and put pressure on each other. And kids see themselves as a reflection of how their peers view them – as successful or failing.

By the way, parents may not be concerned with the college they or their colleagues attended all those years ago, but many of them sure do care about which colleges their kids attend. Boasting about where “my kid” goes to college has become a fine art in local communities. Just look at license-plate frames and bumper stickers sporting the names of elite universities on the cars on our streets.

If parents aren’t pushing their kids to over-achieve, the kids are doing it to themselves and to each other. In some circles, if a student isn’t taking at least four AP classes a year, they are considered academically challenged.

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