Leader of the Pack: Relieving the Strain on Overworked Kids

Mom Vicki Abeles didn't just make a documentary about overburdened, stressed-out students. She created a movement.
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Victoria Yee

They were only in middle school, but Vicki Abeles' two girls were already carrying an impossibly heavy load. "Classes, take-home assignments and extracurricular activities were eating up their lives," says Vicki, 49, from her home in Lafayette, California, just outside San Francisco. "I was afraid of the toll it was taking not just on my daughters, but on our entire family." So when the school brought in experts to talk to parents about the problems of overburdened kids, Vicki was there. Later that month one of her girls ended up in the emergency room for a stress-related illness. "That's when I knew that something had to be done," she says.

Vicki decided to step up and speak out—and get others to do the same. She left her lucrative career as a financial lawyer and started interviewing parents, teachers and students about life in the pressure cooker. Four years later, her groundbreaking documentary film, Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture, is making waves across the country. Provocative and disturbing, the movie asserts that schools are destroying our children's love of learning and ability to think creatively, and rearing a generation of kids who are depressed, disengaged and burned-out.

It has struck a powerful chord. More than 600,000 people have seen Race at community screenings hosted by schools, businesses and organizations. The film has also been shown in 20 countries around the world, from Spain to Singapore. "The epidemic in today's schools isn't just an American problem but a global one," says Vicki. "No wonder the movie has taken on a life of its own."

When she launched the project in 2007, Vicki knew she'd have to use all her entrepreneurial, push-the-envelope skills to make up for her lack of moviemaking experience. She connected with a young filmographer and a dad who was a creative director at a local TV station. Then they started talking to people—education consultants, child development specialists, pediatricians and, of course, harried students and worried parents, capturing the conversations with a handheld camcorder. Vicki edited the interviews into an 18-minute piece and screened it for small audiences in her hometown. The short was so well received that she decided to produce a feature-length documentary. "I wanted to spread the message, but also wanted to make sure this wasn't just a San Francisco-area phenomenon," she says. "I thought it would be a challenge to find kids and parents across the country who would be willing to speak, but it was just the opposite. People really wanted to have a voice and share their stories."

Vicki came up with a cutting-edge way to distribute the film. By showing it mostly in community venues and relying on a word-of-mouth, grassroots campaign, she kept marketing, advertising and commercial theater screening costs to a minimum. By the time Race had its full-length premiere in 2009 at the Mill Valley Film Festival in San Rafael, it had already sparked heated town hall discussions among viewers on how to turn the tide. "After each screening, we asked for feedback, conducted focus groups and told people to give us their e-mail addresses if they were interested in outreach efforts," Vicki says. "When people physically come together to watch the film and then engage in a dialogue about it, that's a powerful way of uniting a community around a common cause."

Race was also a family effort. From the moment Vicki decided to quit her job and devote herself to the project, her husband, Doug, an orthopedic surgeon, was behind her. "Vicki took a hard stance against school taking over family life," says Doug. "I support her efforts to help parents regain control." Their kids (the girls are now 17 and 15; the son is 12) were also willing to help out by being featured in the film. "I struggled with putting them in the spotlight," says Vicki. "But it turned out to be an empowering experience because they now know they're not alone."

These days Vicki is working hard to keep raising awareness and galvanize change. She's quick to point out that educators are not to blame; in the film frustrated teachers lament being forced to teach to standardized tests, which leaves little time for engaging lesson plans that foster inspired, independent thinking. "We need to value, develop and support teachers, not demonize them," Vicki says. "They, too, deserve a place at the table to come up with a better system." To encourage an ongoing national dialogue on education, she's releasing a DVD of Race this fall that includes an hour of bonus features, a 240-page guide and a license for schools to show the film. "On more than one occasion I've had people tell me, 'I had a conversation with my kid after seeing your film, and it changed his life,'" she says. "Then there was the time a student called me late at night. I couldn't pick up—to this day I still regret it. She was crying and left me a message, thanking me for bringing the issue to light. That's what keeps me going."

Want to host a screening?

Find a location (like a library, church or community center) that fits at least 100 people. Go to racetonowhere.com and fill out a screening request form to get online invitations, postcards to publicize your event, and info sheets to hand out after the movie. Ask attendees to buy tickets online and Vicki's team will donate a percentage of the proceeds to your group.

Originally published in the October 1, 2011, issue of Family Circle magazine.