School Lessons From Kenya

(Think Film Company)
By Ruth Marcus
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Drenched in gilt and draped with velvet, Washington's Warner Theatre is an incongruously ornate setting for a gritty new film about inner-city schoolchildren. That dissonance is even more pronounced when the audience consists of 2,000 D.C. middle- and high-schoolers, for many of whom the art on the screen presents an unnervingly accurate imitation of life at home.

Yet the most improbable aspect of the screening I attended last week -- improbable, at least, for anyone who's been to the movies with a few dozen teenagers, let alone a few thousand -- was the audience's rapt attention to "Boys of Baraka," an award-winning documentary about a group of middle-schoolers who go from the dead-end streets of Baltimore to an experimental school in Kenya. They sat transfixed -- erupting at the funny scenes, hushed at the tragic parts -- and afterward lined up 10, 20, eventually 30 deep to ask questions of the two filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.

"Boys of Baraka" tells the story of Baltimore students who sign up for two years at the Baraka School, designed to remove at-risk boys from their toxic environment before it is too late -- before, as a school recruiter says, their options narrow to an "orange jumpsuit with some nice bracelets" or "a nice black suit with a nice brown box."

The film focuses on four boys, but it evokes larger themes: the malignant persistence of concentrated poverty; the collapse of the family (of the 20 boys in the group, only one was in contact with his father); the resigned apathy of many public schools; and the colossal task facing any school trying to educate children in this atmosphere of chaos and violence. This is not the soft bigotry of low expectations but the granite reality of urban life, set to a soundtrack of sirens.

Here I'd like to disclose -- or, rather, boast about -- my bias: I've known co-director Rachel Grady since she was not much older than the Baraka boys -- and, if not at risk, not entirely on track either. So for me, watching the movie, and seeing the grown-up Rachel meld the fearlessness of her teens with maturity of purpose and an artist's eye is a particular joy.

"Boys of Baraka" opens with a heart-sinking statistic: 76 percent of African American boys in Baltimore public schools fail to graduate from high school. "My neighborhood is mostly about drugs," reports 13-year-old Richard Keyser, whose father is serving 13 years for shooting his mother. "What I'm willing to do is get away from here."

But trading the blighted landscape of Baltimore for the breathtaking vistas of the African plain is, of course, no panacea, and this is no simple narrative of escape and redemption. Despite their efforts to hide their pain behind a cloak of manly indifference, these boys see life -- with good reason -- as an unraveling string of disappointments. "Where's Mommy?" 12-year-old Devon asks in one call home -- and, in the instant before his grandmother casually answers that she's spent the night with a friend, you know -- and you know Devon knows -- that his mother, a drug addict, is back in prison.

In the end, "Boys of Baraka" stands as a rebuke to the comfortable orthodoxies of the left and right. The right wants results but is stingy about committing the money necessary to achieve them. Yes, grants to low-income schools and other funding to support No Child Left Behind grew during the first two years of the Bush presidency. But money has been flat-lined since (funding actually fell from 2005 to 2006) and the latest budget envisions less overall federal spending on elementary and secondary education in 2011 than in 2003.

Yet for all the legitimate complaints from many on the left about the straitjacketed rules and underfunded mandates of No Child Left Behind, for all the heartfelt concern about the threats posed by charter schools and voucher programs, it's impossible to watch this film and think anything other than: whatever it takes to give these children and others like them a chance.

The left's reflexive antipathy toward anything associated with the Bush administration has obscured the importance of holding schools accountable for the children they are failing. At Baraka, teachers discover that Richard is performing at a second-grade level. "He's never been evaluated as far as we know in the States, which is mind-boggling -- that some teacher wouldn't notice at some point in time that this kid is not learning anything," says teacher Monica Lemoine.

"When you're sending them to Baltimore city schools, you're sending them to jail," says one Baraka parent. School vouchers make me queasy, but "Boys of Baraka" forces the question: Who am I to tell parents in this terrible circumstance that the public schools are their only option?

Which brings me back to the Warner screening. What you wouldn't have known from the packed house was how hard the sponsors, the D.C. Environmental Film Festival, had to work to get some of the students there. Most were from charter schools, which snapped up the invitations. But organizers made call after call trying to overcome the bureaucratic inertia of the D.C. school system.

Of the city's 37 traditional middle and high schools, students from only seven came.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company