First Person

Voices: Documentary tells one school's story

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 public

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.


First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.