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HBO Raises the Bar Again With Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card

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In one particularly gripping scene of HBO's new documentary, Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card, Principal Grant tells her faculty, "If only 3 out of your 25 students can pass the test, we simply can't give you a proficient rating."

When the teachers respond alternately with glares, eye-rolling, and emphatic rebuttals, the principal holds her ground. "You've got 22 out of 25 students failing. That does not equal proficiency for a teacher."

On the face of it, Grant's point is hard to argue. A 12% pass rate is awful. Something is wrong. But is it substandard teaching? Unmotivated students? Meddling bureaucrats? A poisonous ghetto-culture environment? Absent parents? Out-of-touch federal legislation? Learned helplessness?

Academy Award-winning filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond are too smart to offer up any magic bullets. Their fascinating new feature-length documentary, premiering Monday, June 23 at 9 p.m. on HBO, puts viewers inside West Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School for a full school year. Hard Times at Douglass High delivers urgent subject matter with a punch; the medium of film brings a power to this story that no article or essay quite can.

Douglass High has history; it was one of the first all-black high schools in America and boasts Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as an alumnus. At the time of filming (the 2004-2005 school year), still-segregated Douglass held 1,100 students. Of those 1,100, five hundred are ninth-graders and only two hundred graduated twelfth grade. Nearly a third of those two hundred graduates required special last-minute academic considerations to be allowed to receive their diplomas.

The dropout figures are staggering, brought to vivid life by the Raymonds' honing in on several students as they struggle through the year. Seventeen-year-old Audie is in ninth-grade. He baffles teachers and administrators by coming to school, then refusing to enter a classroom. Occasionally he cracks a witty comment when one of the school's various disciplinarians attempts to collect him from his hallway roost. Audie's brain is sharp, but he has clearly decided that school has nothing to offer him. When teachers appeal to him, he shuts down. His future is terrifyingly bleak.

Early in the film, we meet Mr. McDermott, an impassioned ninth-grade English teacher in his third year at Douglass. His lessons resemble ones I've seen work well in schools in the Bronx. However, he receives blank stares from what he describes as the most challenging, unresponsive class he's ever had. His self-described finest moment was when he had five parents (out of twenty-five) visit him on Back to School Night. He's gone by second semester.

It's not all failure and dejection. Hard Times at Douglass High introduces us to Shanae, a tough-as-nails rapper (who contributes the driving song that plays under the opening titles) who is determined to succeed. We meet Jordan, a champion debater and first-class charmer, who speaks candidly about growing up without a father. We watch the defending state champion basketball play their biggest game of the season. We see the award-winning Cab Calloway (an alumnus) music program in action. And we see a lot of the loving, West Baltimore-born-and-bred principal, Isabelle Grant.

Ms. Grant, in her fourth year leading Douglass, is working her heart out just to get kids to show up (getting them in the door on time is an entirely different battle), let alone graduate and thrive. Only one student in the school had scored about 1000 on the SAT the previous year.

The challenges are immense. The students are struggling. The teachers are exhausted. The administration is stretched thin. The school is under-resourced. Many students are literally asleep with blank test packets in front of them on the day of the all-important High School Assessment exam.

Coming back to Ms. Grant's exhortation at the faculty meeting, is it the teachers' failure to teach proficiently that explains Douglass' abysmal test scores? Whatever the reason, at the year's end, the state fired Ms. Grant and her administration, took over the school, and installed metal detectors.

See the movie Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.