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Posted at 05:25 PM ET, 12/21/2011

Seat Pleasant 59: The challenges of telling the story through video

On Tuesday, The Post ran the last article in a three-part interactive series on the Seat Pleasant 59, a group of fifth-graders from Seat Pleasant Elementary School who were offered scholarships to college in May 1988. Reporter Paul Schwartzman discussed the series in a live chat Monday, and the series has received hundreds of reader comments. Here, Post videojournalist Whitney Shefte explains the challenges she faced while trying to tell the compelling stories of the “Dreamers.”

When I first learned about the 59 fifth-graders from Seat Pleasant Elementary School in Seat Pleasant, Md., who in 1988 received the offer of free college tuition if they graduated from high school, the story possibilities seemed endless. How many made the most of the incredible gift they were given just for being at the right place at the right time? How many squandered it, perhaps due to the circumstances of living in a crime-ridden and poverty-stricken neighborhood?

Twenty-three years later, these people surely have found themselves in very different places in life from one another. But when I started making phone calls, I quickly learned that reaching these individuals and getting them to talk to me would be a formidable challenge.

With only 11 of the students that we know of graduating from a four-year college, many felt they had failed by not taking advantage of the offer. And who wants to tell the world about their failures? But after getting some of the “Dreamers,” as they were called in school, to talk with me, I learned that success means different things to different people. While I was unable to get most of the “Dreamers” to go on camera, I was able to find enough of them who could offer a varying picture of how life turned out for different people.

William Smith and Jeffery Norris are two of the “Dreamers” I spent the most time with. They are two men who were good friends in school and have similar stories but have ultimately found themselves on divergent paths.

Smith dropped out of high school just four credits shy of graduating. Only a few weeks later, he suffered a violent attack at a nightclub that left him unable to walk. Without a high school diploma, Smith says he makes his money as a “hustler,” selling whatever he can on the streets. In June, police found 77 grams of crack cocaine in Smith’s apartment.

Norris graduated from high school but soon began a lucrative drug-dealing business. Only after he suffered a terrible car accident and barely escaped a decades-long prison sentence did Norris say he chose to live differently. He now plays the organ in his church choir and cuts hair for a living. He says he brings home about $50,000 a year and owns and lives in the house his grandparents lived in when he was growing up. Neither of these men graduated from college, but both say they gained a lot from being part of the “I have a dream” program.

One of the other challenges I grappled with was how to tell a story about something that happened so long ago. Talking head videos generally bore me silly, and I wanted to be sure this video did not end up only as a mashup of different interviews.

I tried to track down television footage from the announcement in 1988 but failed at every attempt. Luckily, The Post has a good archiving system and I was able to get hold of the photos our staff photographers made that day. I relied on general b-roll of the school and the town that I shot to fill other gaps. In some of the sidebar personality profile stories I worked on, I was able to gather b-roll of the characters living their lives now.

Ultimately this project took a significant amount of time to complete due to the challenges mentioned and the sheer number of characters we had to account for in one way or another. But it is a story that asks a lot of questions and explains a great deal about education, class, race, crime and other social issues. For those reasons, we think such in-depth reporting and production is of great value to our viewers and readers. We hope you agree.

An earlier version of this story misstated the number of students who graduated from a four-year college. It has been corrected.

Related:

Seat Pleasant 59: Following the Dreamers (full series)

Part One: The Promise

Part Two: The Reality

Part Three: The Legacy

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By  |  05:25 PM ET, 12/21/2011

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