Two films scheduled to air on PBS in the coming days examine schooling in America and feature two vastly different populations. In 180 Days, a two-part documentary that spends one year in Washington’s DC Metropolitan High School, students are overwhelmingly poor, families are fractured by drug abuse and homelessness, and children struggle to resist the lure of criminal activity. In American Promise, a documentary that spends 12 years in New York City’s The Dalton School, students are overwhelmingly rich, families are cohered to high expectations and achievement, and children struggle to maintain academic excellence.
Though the populations featured in each film could not be more different, the young people in them are linked by race, and that one common element is so powerful that, though the external, day-to-day experiences in each school are vastly different, the internalized fears, the yearning to find one’s place, and, yes, the unseen yet ever-present and all-powerful force of institutionalized racism limiting the potential of each student could not be more achingly similar.
The conversations launched by each film are also achingly similar. After screenings for each movie, black parents clustered, huddled in their desire to reach the same end goal: How to achieve the best education for our children. How to win.
At DC Met, as the District public high school is lovingly called by the adults and young people featured in 180 Days, school principal Tanisha Williams Minor races and even rhymes to prepare her students to take the DC Comprehensive Assessment System tests (DC CAS). A bright and beautiful young woman willing to bop and rap to engage and motivate her students, Minor code-switches with ease, transitioning from standard English to colloquial expressions and expressing authentic closeness with her students - and the communities from which they come. The DC CAS scores in math and English are one in a series of about 15 metrics that Minor says the District of Columbia Public Schools system uses to rate schools and determine the professional destinies of the adults who staff them. If students fail, the principal and teachers fail, and school staff members may lose their jobs.
Teachers join students preparing for the DC CAS in the school cafeteria and help them rotate through learning centers where basic skills are drilled through worksheets, student play, and educational games. Seemingly liberated by Minor’s leadership style, one teacher jokes about one student’s use of the letter D, “as in ‘das’ not the correct answer.” A moment later in the film, after their shared laughter, the same teacher explains why she requires deeper thinking about the work from a group of successful students before they can move along to the next learning center: “I need you to understand why these answers are correct. You’re not going to fail this test on my watch.”
Without employing the near-militaristic use of discipline in many franchise charter schools popping up around the country, teachers at DC Met demand students reach their personal best - and scores improve. According to Minor, 100% of DC Met students improved on the DC CAS, though not as much as DC Public Schools Administrators wanted them to. In a system where the Black-White achievement gap is more than twice the national average, Minor considers a statistic like the 92 percent attendance rate she achieved with a student population prone to truancy an important victory. Her numbers, however, may not be enough to save the school.
Minor laments the numbers-driven approach to assessing schools that dominate public schooling and yearns for what she calls stories-driven assessment. During the Q&A following a screening of the film, Minor asked the audience to consider the experience of black students on the DC Metro, riding with early morning commuters who don’t look like them, or even at them, who don’t want to see them as they ride through rush hour on their way to school. Let’s start with that story, she offers.
Their anxiety doesn’t disappear in the afternoon. As DC Met In-School Suspension Coordinator and basketball coach Gary Barnes says in the film, consider that when some of these young people ride home on the Metro, they aren’t even sure they have a home to ride to. Their housing situation is so unstable, they may not be able to eat, may not know where to sleep, may not have clean clothes for the next school day. And the students in these situations will not tell their teachers this story. They simply show up, and in what one school social worker in the film calls the “Get Over It Society,” they have not had the opportunity to process their feelings. The young learner staying with someone other than whoever is listed in the official paperwork feels like their home situation is really none of the teacher’s business, Barnes says.
How will these kids respond when a teacher asks a simple question like where is your homework? Certainly not by stating they had no chance to complete it as they tried to figure out housing for the night.
The key, Barnes says, is to convince these young learners that the adults really want to help and not use the students as a statistic, to bump scores to save a job, or to dominate a league or division to get a trophy.
Minor uses the Big Picture Model at DC Met. When a student doesn’t have a pen, teachers simply supply one instead of denigrating him for not being prepared. By helping kids recognize their inherent greatness first, and then overcoming whatever obstacles are in place in order to help them in the world outside school, Minor says she and her staff are “moving a mountain every day.”
Coach Barnes moves mountains with honest talk. He tells players that if they win a championship in high school but can’t get a job after they graduate, then “sports has used you.” The school has won accolades, the coach has received recognition, but “you’re on the street looking for a job.” And, Barnes tells them with the same quiet passion as the teacher in the school cafeteria DC CAS drill learning center, I’m not going to let that happen to you.
Raven Q. selected DC Met over Anacostia High School because she wanted to be in the school’s very first graduating class. When her grandmother reported her drug-addicted mother to social services, Raven and her brother were sent to live in separate homes. In the film, Raven says she robbed people just to experience the daily sensation of placing her fist against her victim’s flesh. Attacking strangers, she says, enabled her to express her feelings.
After a close friend is shot multiple times and killed for stealing a cellular telephone, Raven determines to change the course of her young life. In the foster home where she lives, she shows one wall of her room, where she has hung t-shirts that are designed to pay homage to her peers who have died on the DC streets. On the opposite wall, she has hung memorabilia that celebrates her successes and motivates her, images like the test she took at DC Met that earned her a B-.
In her senior year, Raven joins a poetry club, where she reads Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son.” Another poet reads in his own work that he going to take “college classes with this 1.6 average.”
Raven learns to express herself on paper instead of across a victim’s face at DC Met - and she feels safe enough to write and share poetry in a school where, she said during a post-screening Q&A, teachers insist on showing students how important they are, who “heard my side,” she said, who “always cared.”
Raven wanted to go to college, but didn’t know how. Counselors at DC Met held her hand through the application process. In 180 Days, viewers will cheer when they see Raven ring a bell to celebrate her acceptance to Bennett College, an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) where she currently majors in social work. During her first semester at Bennett, Raven improved from her solid B- test score and earned placement on the school’s Honors and Dean’s Lists.
Dispelling the myth that children situated on the margins of American society and at the bottom in American schools will never obtain an undergraduate degree, use those credentials to get a job, and use that job to give back to the communities from which they come, as Raven says she wants to do because she “grew up in the system,” is one of the many stories Principal Minor wants to tell. These are the stories that should drive the public discourse about American education and so-called failing schools. It is a privilege to hear these stories as they are told in this film.
“180 Days” director/producer Jacquie Jones says three teachers didn’t sign the release forms to appear in the documentary until late in the filmmaking process. At a screening in DC, one of those three teachers approached Jones and said she was glad she had signed the release. “I want my mom and dad to see this,” she told Jones. “I want people to see what we do every day.”
“180 Days” reminds us that public education is a civil right. Listening to the stories in this powerful film is just one way of joining The Movement. Listening is one way to help all our children get to the end zone, to succeed in school systems that still have not been structured for them to win.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen is author of the novel “Crystelle Mourning”. She can be reached at www.EisaUlen.com.