Pleasanton Weekly

News - November 26, 2010

School district looks at student stress, homework

Movie, forums, educational days part of the process

by Glenn Wohltmann

A months-long look into whether Pleasanton expects too much from its young people began Nov. 17 with a showing of the movie "Race to Nowhere."

The movie focuses on the lives of high school students and some younger kids -- one in the fourth grade, for example -- to highlight the stress they're under to achieve. It includes the story of 13-year-old Devon Marvin, a San Ramon Valley middle school girl who committed suicide, apparently over poor math scores.

The drive to achieve chronicled in "Race" can also lead to students staying up late at night to complete homework, depression, anxiety, drug use and an epidemic of cheating, something many of the students in the film described as routine.

Kiley Johnson, a 17-year-old Amador Valley High student, said after the viewing, held at her high school, that she herself is not overwhelmed with homework, but she has many friends who are, and she could relate to the film's message.

"I think there was so much truth to what they were saying," Johnson said. "I take AP classes but I know how to balance my life. My parents don't pressure me -- it's nobody but myself."

Like Johnson, many of the students in the movie but the pressure on themselves. Although Johnson said she could balance her life, some of the students in "Race" spoke of staying up late to complete assignments -- one, despite being told by her parents not to worry, because she thought the teacher would be upset with her.

Part of the movie focused on the idea that the pressure on students didn't even apply to college success but was for the application process, to get into a top-tier school.

"That's completely true," Johnson said, pointing to things like community service projects done by her peers just to have on their application, and participating in sports in addition to taking advanced placement classes.

In fact, one of the speakers in the film noted that many students have to take remedial math and English courses after entering a top school.

The issues in "Race to Nowhere" seemed to resonate with local parents, whose emotions were obvious during parts of the screening.

However, some parents, like Jodie Fialho, have more realistic expectations from their children. Fialho, who said her 14-year-old son, Jackson, couldn't attend the screening because he was rewriting an essay for school, said she doesn't pressure her kids.

"I truly believe in everything they say (in the movie)," Fialho said. "I don't believe in the overscheduling."

Fialho also has a 12-year-old, Bryson, who does work extra hard, but she said, "That's just who he is."

"We never ask him, 'Is your homework done?'" she said.

The school district conducted a homework survey last spring and expects to rewrite its homework policy by early next year.

Eric Carr, with children in first and fourth grades, is years away from seeing the kind of homework and performance stress detailed in "Race," but came to the showing to see what he may be up against some day.

"It's good to know about the pressures children have, especially when they get older," Carr said.

The two showings of "Race to Nowhere" last week are just a part of the Pleasanton school district's look into what kids are facing.

One of the speakers from the movie, Dr. Kenneth Ginsberg, will speak in Pleasanton in March.

A parent educational night on teen stress, depression and anxiety is set for 7 p.m. Dec. 8 at Amador Valley High, and three homework forums have been scheduled from 7-8:30 p.m. The first, for elementary school students, is Jan. 27 at Hearst Elementary School; the middle school forum is Feb. 2 at Pleasanton Middle School; and the third is Feb. 9 at Amador Valley.

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