The ABCs of Failure

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By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 23, 2008

The camera sweeps from the boarded-up and blighted buildings of West Baltimore, past the sign for Slick Rick's Bail Bonds and into the halls of Frederick Douglass High School, where every day, teachers struggle to mold reality to the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act. There -- in ways evocative of HBO's "The Wire" -- teachers find themselves butting up against scant resources and no shortage of apathy, often facing troubled teenagers who refuse to go to class but who show up for school just the same.

Unlike "The Wire," however, "Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card," which airs tonight at 9 on HBO, is pure documentary. The Oscar-winning husband-and-wife filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond take a cinema verite approach to a year (2005) in the life of a school under siege.

"It's not an entertainment doc," Alan Raymond says in an interview. "It's not reality TV. It's not a feel-good documentary."

Unless Douglass's standardized tests improve in the wake of President Bush's 2001 act, the historically black school -- which counts among its alumni Thurgood Marshall and Cab Calloway -- faces sanctions or closure. And meeting the requirements is the most Sisyphean of tasks.

At the time of filming, many of the students read at an elementary school level. More than 500 freshmen matriculate each year yet only 50 percent return for their sophomore year. Only 10 percent passed the reading proficiency tests; math scores are at 1 percent. Some 67 percent of the teachers are not certified.

The statistics are bleak, but hardly unique to Douglass. As the Raymonds see it, Douglass is just a stand-in for the American public education system as a whole.

"Urban education is a moral tragedy in this country," Alan Raymond says. "It is a system of public education that has essentially abandoned a large portion of this country. . . . We all know where that leads. It leads to consequences."

Adds Susan Raymond: "If you're depressed [after seeing the documentary], it means that we've succeeded."

For 10 months, the Raymonds hung out at the school, recording every nuance: Principal Isabelle Grant, a Douglass graduate herself, patrolling the halls, stopping to hug a student or urging latecomers to class. Sparsely attended PTA meetings. Teachers scrambling to come up with basic supplies. A teacher describing how she struck a deal on the down low with a teacher at another school to score some much-needed textbooks: "I met her at the back door," she says.

Then there's Sharnae, a young aspiring rapper, describing her life at 16: "Home is a place where you lay your head. . . . I've been independent myself for five years. I don't know anyone living with their mother and father. . . . I wish my life was different."

There was a time when life at Douglass was different. Operating since 1883, it is one of the nation's oldest historically African American high schools -- a draw for Baltimore's best and brightest black students at a time when Jim Crow ruled the day. In one of life's little ironies, Marshall took Brown v. Board of Education to the Supreme Court, winning the case and desegregating schools across the country; with integration, the black middle class scattered to the suburbs, leaving inner city schools like Douglass behind. As Susan Raymond notes in a voice-over, Douglass "is once again separate and unequal."

The Raymonds initially weren't aware of Douglass's history. They had searched the country to find the right school with the right fit for their documentary. But it took a while before they could find a school willing to open its doors. "Access for this type of filmmaking is very hard to get," Alan Raymond says. "To tell a school board you want to be able to go into an urban school" and film everything "usually struck terror in the hearts of the people we asked."

As 30-year documentary veterans, the Raymonds know a little something about getting unrestricted access to their subjects. In the 1970s, they pioneered the first reality TV series, eavesdropping on the lives of the Loud family for PBS's "An American Family"; 10 million viewers watched the Louds' marriage crumble while coming to terms with their chronicling everything from divorce to a gay son's coming out. Over the decades, the Raymonds kept in touch with the Louds, filming their lives in "American Family Revisited" (1983) and "Lance Loud! A Death in an American Family" (2003). ("Hard Times," the Loud family series and documentaries were screened in their entirety at Silverdocs last week.) In 1994, the Raymonds won an Academy Award for another documentary tackling urban education: "I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School."

"We've been doing this a very long time," Susan Raymond says. "When we film, that's the fun part."

"Lots of fights in the editing room," Alan Raymond adds. "Big-time fights." (The Raymonds are based in Philadelphia and have a son, who is in college.)

On Friday, the Douglass High School marching band pranced through the streets of downtown Silver Spring, tubas blaring, drumline thumping, flag corps twirling the school's orange, blue and white colors, across Georgia Avenue and into the auditorium of the AFI Cultural Center for the world premiere of "Hard Times." Afterward, the audience cheered Grant, Douglass's beleaguered principal, who has since retired, and applauded Matt Lampart, a Douglass graduate featured in the film who's entering his junior year at Morgan State University.

" 'The Wire' painted in broad strokes what the school system is like," says Matt McDermott, a former English teacher at Douglass who became disillusioned and left the school during filming. "This filled in a lot of the facts."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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