Evanston parents watch, discuss documentary about overstressed students

Alex Putterman, Reporter

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With education a hot-button issue in greater Chicago and throughout the country, and mantras like President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top ruling popular opinion, a group of Evanston residents gathered Wednesday to ponder the possibility that students are engaged in a perilous “race to nowhere.”

For two hours at Evanston Township High School, several hundred local parents attended a forum entitled “Raising Children in Evanston: A Community Conversation About the Demand of Modern Childhood,” which included a screening of the 2009 documentary “Race to Nowhere” and break-out discussion groups afterward.

The film, conceived and produced by Vicki Abeles, profiles families, students and teachers struggling against a performance-based, homework-riddled American education system. Abeles was inspired to produce the film when the visible stress of her own three children, plus the suicide of a 13-year old girl in her community, raised her consciousness of the dangers of over-stressed students. According to the film’s website, it has now been viewed in more than 5,000 schools, universities, cinemas, hospitals, corporations and community centers in the United States and around the world.

Upon her first viewing of “Race to Nowhere,” Evanston resident Heather Sweeney said she initially doubted that Evanston suffered from the chronic over-work of the documentary’s subjects. But Sweeney began hearing from ETHS parents and students who identified with those in the film and learned that the school had suffered a record number of hospitalizations due to stress, depression and anxiety.

“I was shocked to hear about it happening here,” she said. “I think we’re sheltered from it.”

Sweeney decided to bring the film to the attention of the Evanston community and, with others, organized the event at ETHS with hopes to “make sure that other families in Evanston knew about these issues so that we could all start thinking about them and thinking about, ‘as a community, what do we want to change?’”

Andy Schultz, father of two young children who attended Wednesday’s forum, said the film “treated kids as an aggregate” and didn’t “provide a clear path in terms of what to do” but saw unrealistic expectations as a principle cause of student stress.

“What we saw today (in the video) was people targeting expectations much higher than their kids are capable of,” he said. “So that’s the problem, and that was one of the messages.”

Another elementary school parent similarly blamed parents for the stresses of their children. Tina Rosselli came to ETHS from New Trier Township for the event and was impressed by the film’s message.

“It really makes you think,” she said of the documentary. “There are some things that we think we’re doing for the benefit of our kid, but maybe they’re not for the benefit of our kid.”

With college admissions a driving force behind this culture of competition and college-geared resume-building a force behind a stress-plagued generation of students, Sweeney expressed a need for adjustment in attitude.

“I think that we just really need to look at the kind of high-quality education that we want,” she said. “And to make sure we define success in a way that is not defined by college admission.”