LAFAYETTE -- With her groundbreaking documentary "Race to Nowhere," Vicki Abeles has become the catalyst for a reform movement focused on reducing stress in students' lives and making education meaningful.
"I'm encouraged that the film has struck a nerve and that, importantly, conversations around the country are changing and evolving," said Abeles, 50, who lives in Lafayette with her husband and three children.
Abeles said she began work on the documentary a few years ago, after having an "Aha"-"Inconvenient Truth"-type of moment, when she realized that a film about the kinds of discussions she was having with her own children and friends in the Bay Area could trigger a nationwide call to action. Since 2009, more than 1 million people have seen the film -- often in venues where parents and educators could discuss it afterward.
The Grand Lake Theater in Oakland is showing the film three times a night through Thursday, with a question-and-answer session led by Abeles and some of the people who appear in her film after a 6 p.m. Tuesday screening.
"People usually spend a lot of time reacting at an emotional level because it kind of hits everybody where they live," Abeles said. "People want to understand what schools can do to influence change and how to make changes at college admissions offices."
Abeles admits that she was initially the kind of mom who fretted when her daughter brought home a "B" on a test and who busily whisked her children from school to violin lessons to sporting events to provide them with extras she didn't have as a child. But that changed after she found one of her daughters doubled over with stomach pains while trying to pull an all-nighter doing homework.
Doctors said her stomach aches were stress-related. In the film, Abeles shows how her children and others across the United States are growing up trying to be great at everything so they can get into the best colleges.
But doing schoolwork, homework and other activities around the clock is physically and emotionally draining, those in the film say. It can cause headaches, stomach aches, eating disorders, depression and in some instances, can even lead to suicide.
Abeles spoke to teens, parents, teachers, psychologists, university officials and education experts about the toll that all work and no play takes on families. Students from Danville, San Ramon, Oakland, Marin, Concord, Lafayette and other parts of the country revealed how unhappy, sleep-deprived and anxious they felt as they tried to compete with their classmates to prove their worth to Ivy League schools.
The film resonates with audiences and has prompted some to ask Abeles to champion change. In response, she recently launched a "Homework-Free Weekend and Holiday" campaign, which has received thousands of pledges from schools around the country.
She is also working on a book and is filming innovative schools to show others how children can receive quality educations with hands-on learning projects, in atmospheres where they are challenged to think critically, without worrying about the quantity of AP courses and extracurricular activities they pursue. It's important for children to discover what they are passionate about, Abeles said.
As lawmakers look to rewrite No Child Left Behind, Abeles said she hopes their constituents will ask for changes in the education system.
"The public, in a way, has bought into this idea of simple ways to measure how our schools and educators and students are doing," she said. "As soon as we start demanding a different approach, I think it will start to turn the tides."