‘Best Kept Secret’: How a teacher helps autistic students

“Best Kept Secret” is a new documentary worth watching about a teacher in New Jersey who works with autistic students to help then prepare to live in the world once they graduate from school.

The students attend JFK High School in Newark, a public school for students with a wide range of special needs. Administrators there answer the phone by saying, “This is John F. Kennedy High School, Newark’s Best Kept Secret.”

The documentary follows Janet Mino, who has been teaching young autistic men for four years at the school, and several students for a year and half before they graduated in 2012. Newark Mayor Cory Booker has visited the high school and met the students featured in the film.

It was directed by Samantha Buck, a filmmaker and actor, and produced by filmmaker/distributor Danielle DiGiacomo, and is premiering tonight in the Washington D.C. area at the AFI DOCS festival at the American History Museum. It has already won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at IFFBoston 2013.

Here’s a trailer about the film:

Here’s a statement that Buck issued about why she made the film:

The first question I get about Best Kept Secret is usually, “What is your personal relationship to autism?” Until making this film, I always thought the answer was, “None.” What I learned is that we are all connected to it. Autism is part of who we are as a society. Across the country young adults who turn 21 are pushed out of the school system. They often end up with nowhere to go; they simply disappear from productive society. This is what educators call “Falling off the cliff.”

While I was on the festival circuit with my last feature documentary I saw many films about young children with autism. These films were moving and important, but they only spoke of a limited population – predominately Caucasian and financially stable. But what happens to children with autism who grow up in less fortunate circumstances? I began to research public schools in inner city areas all over and the best kind of accident of fate brought me to JFK and Janet Mino – a force of nature who changed my life. She has been a constant reminder to have faith, value every member of society, and believe in people’s potential.

While Best Kept Secret may not help all of our boys, I hope it will pave the road for better options for the young men and women who come after them. I want the same thing for the young people depicted in this film as I want for any young person, a chance at a good quality of life and a bright future.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · June 20, 2013