What does one school with poor, truant kids have to do with you? Good question?
Next Monday and Tuesday, March 25 and March 26, PBS will air 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School, a 4-hour special that tells the story of a single tumultuous year in a "failing" public high school. 180 Days is produced by the National Black Programming Consortium and, full disclosure, executive produced and directed by me. Our official press release describes the two-part series as, "an intimate portrait of life for the first graduating class of the Washington Metropolitan High School (DC Met), a public school in Washington, D.C, where only seven percent of students are deemed 'proficient' in math and only 19 percent in reading."
After receiving this press release, a veteran African American journalist for whom I have the utmost respect, asked me this question in an email: "I looked at the site for this program and I see that the team spent a lot of time in the high school, but what I'm not getting is why this is compelling television. Why should I watch?"
That's a good question. And, as I said to him, my honest answer on whether or not you should watch really depends on how interested you are in the top-down, mostly privately-funded school reform "movement" currently shaping our national education policy and the impact it's having on black and brown and, most especially, poor children. From a purely civic discourse perspective, I find that we hear a lot from "experts" who have very little direct experience with what goes on in a public school and seem not to understand that children, like adults, bring long histories with them that impact everything they do -- from forming relationships to mastering complicated physics principles.
These experts also seem to be strangely unaware of the disparities that go hand-in-hand with the grinding poverty that nearly one in four American children -- and 40 percent of children in DC -- are born into. As the principal of the school once said to me, "If a kid is hiding from the police tonight, trust me, he's not thinking about his Algebra II quiz tomorrow."
I have been to several conferences lately where attendees seem to believe that some magical combination of "accountability," volunteer mentors, longer school days and adaptive learning technology are all that's needed to reverse several generations of ingrained disenfranchisement, chronic displacement, food and housing insecurity and more. It seems to be quite literally a different world to the one in which children are parents, parents are absent and schools are expected to solve not just the problems of "reading, writing and arithmetic," but all of the problems of society as well.
Of course, there will always be bright stars that can through sheer force of will and personality overcome any hardship thrown in their path. Those remarkable few have always been in the minority. But their phenomenal successes -- as brilliant teachers or gifted students -- do not disguise the fact that, after a decade's worth of intense federal intervention and billions of dollars of public and private funding, achievement and opportunity gaps are widening. With new policies that undermine teachers and principals thrown into the mix, we are kidding ourselves if we think things are getting better.
One scene from 180 Days that haunts me the most is a scene where one of the school's most promising students, Tiara, loses a full ride scholarship to Lincoln University because of a clerical error on the part of the admissions officer. The error reveals itself in May, after the window on her other scholarship opportunities has closed. Tiara would be the first in her family to go to college, and, in fact, the first of her mother's nine children not to end up in the juvenile justice system by her 18th birthday. The devastation on her mother's face over the scholarship debacle speaks volumes about the impact of poverty beyond a single child or a single school -- and all because of someone else's bad math.
If Tiara is not empowered to break the cycle in her family even when she makes the grades, there's a better conversation we should be having here that goes beyond proficiency on standardized tests and teacher evaluations. We use all of these antiseptic terms to make ourselves feel accomplished, busy, like we're really getting to the heart of the issue instead of using them to actually solve problems. In the decade since "No child Left Behind" was enacted, fewer poor children have access to top-tier, four-year colleges than they did before. And the kids know the deal. They know what they are up against. And changing the name from "No Child Left Behind" to "Race to the Top" does little to reassure them that we are sincere about finding answers for them.
In some ways, 180 Days was imagined as a kind of counterpoint to films -- such as "Waiting for Superman" or "the Lottery" -- highlighting the voices and experiences of the kids, teachers, principals and parents who are actually on the front lines of all of this and backgrounding the voices of the "reformers." To that end, the series is very observational, with no narration or outside voices explaining what is going on. It very simply follows the day-to-day interactions of teachers and school leaders with kids and parents over a hectic year in which anything that can happen in a school happens - babies born, students shot, SAT taken and re-taken, parents lost, a beloved leader brought to a dramatic crossroads, patterns continued and patterns broken. "180 Days" is the proverbial walk in someone else's shoes experience.
Our hope is that viewers walk away with a more complex view of the challenges public schools face as well as the opportunities. Of the 30 kids that graduate in that first class, for example, every one of them were accepted to college. My favorite quote about the series so far came from our partners at Nashville Public Television: "'180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School' takes viewers behind the talk about education to the actions -- often heroic -- of teachers, administrators, and students battling poverty and chaos in the struggle to teach and learn." In essence, the film is putting faces and stories next to statistics and rhetoric. The ultimate goal would be to use these new insights to make more informed choices as voters and citizens.
We at the National Black Programming Consortium are not educators. We are moms and dads and aunts and uncles. We are filmmakers. We are also members of these same communities. And thanks to the amazing alliance of partners that are part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's American Graduate Initiative, over 300,000 people (many of them are teachers) have already participated in a community or youth outreach event as part of "180 Days" or joined us online to deepen our understanding of public education in America today. Together, we believe we can use our network of locally owned and operated public television and radio stations to move the needle one community at a time. We hope you'll join us by tuning into the broadcast and joining us online.