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 mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.