Education researcher Holly Yettick says a new film documenting the first four years of a Brooklyn high school offers a refreshingly real take on urban education without a heavy-handed message.
In recent years, American viewers have been bombarded with a spate of message-heavy education documentaries that tell us what is ailing public education and how to fix it. There are the charter schoolies (Waiting for Superman, The Lottery), the kids-are-too-stressed-outies (Race to Nowhere), the unionies (American Teacher), etc. While many of these films are both moving and well-intentioned, it was refreshing recently to see a different type of education documentary at the Boulder International Film Festival.
The New Public follows the first four years of the Brooklyn Community High School for Communication, Arts and Media, or BCAM. The film, like the school, opens in 2006 with a blast of idealistic energy as the founders recruit students and introduce new school rituals like hallway dance lines and yoga classes. Viewers get glimpses of the school’s hallmark emphasis on novel arts courses and inquiry-based learning.
But this being reality rather than Hollywood, challenges soon appear. A boy struggles with his sexual identity. A girl struggles to stay clear of bullies and fights. A mother cries tears of frustration when her son’s senioritis threatens to up-end everything they have worked toward. One of the school’s co-founders finds himself re-learning how to teach after realizing that he’s not reaching BCAM kids with the approaches that worked at his former school. By the end of the film, some of the founding kids have dropped out while others have succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams: The graduation ceremony that closes the documentary is, as a result, bitter sweet. As someone who has been to her own fair share of urban high school graduations, I can say that this is really pretty accurate.
The New Public could easily have been a vehicle for any number of education messages.
BCAM’s founders, for instance, met in Teach for America, the training and recruitment program that is the darling of many reformers who have a bone to pick with teachers’ unions. Nowhere is their former Teach for America status mentioned in the film. Nor does the film let on that, unlike many small, new schools, BCAM employs unionized teachers. As such, the producers also skip an opportunity to convey a pro-union message.
Stylistically, the film is verite. There is no omniscient narrator to tell viewers how to feel and what to think. Instead, the children and adults associated with the school narrate their own stories in their own way. The documentary gracefully incorporates footage shot by BCAM students, including up-and-coming filmmaker John Dargan, who updated his inspirational story this weekend in Boulder during a post-film Q & A. (Dargan, a Connecticut College junior, filmed President Obama’s second inauguration as an intern at PBS.)
I think what I liked best about The New Public is that BCAM is not held up as a mom-and-pop miracle poised to become the next educational Starbucks, with franchises in every city. Nor is it denigrated as a Lean on Me style tangle of hopeless failure. Although the school’s rising graduation rate is noted at the end of the film, you have to snoop around online if you want to find the school’s test results and accountability ratings, which are mixed. The filmmakers seem more interested in telling stories than in proving points. If the film does have a message it is that when it comes to “fixing” public education, there are no easy answers.
This is probably one of the reasons why The New Public has attracted less attention than its more polemic peers. Unlike Waiting for Superman, The New Public is not playing at the local Cineplex. Big advocacy organizations are not lining up to sponsor New Public forums and events.
In fact, I can’t even tell you how you can see the movie because it is not currently scheduled to play again in Colorado. The New Public producers and editors said they’d be love to set up local screenings if anyone here is interested. Otherwise, all I can advise is to look here and here to contact the filmmakers and/or view future events outside the state.
Holly Yettick is a researcher for the Buechner Institute for Governance at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. (These views represent the personal opinions of the author and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system.)