Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

When There Are No Right Answers

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

When There Are No Right Answers

Article excerpt

A documentary film about a new US public school was meant to capture a success story. But as students dropped out and teachers' idealism crumbled, it revealed instead a malaise that is harming the whole system. Jon Marcus reports.

Those first-day feelings of nervousness and enthusiasm were compounded at the Brooklyn Community High School of Communication Arts and Media (BCAM) by the fact that the entire school was new, an experiment in small and democratic secondary education launched by idealistic teachers in a tough, poor area of New York City.

"I'm giddy," said one, Kevin Greer, after he welcomed students to his English class. "They're going to feel sorry for kids who don't go to our school."

Down the hall, another teacher, Lavie Raven, made up a new name for his class in the humanities. "The Next Sun Rising," Raven dubbed it. "Why not?" he asked, smiling. It was a new year in a new school. "Call it anything you want."

Also in those enthusiastic first few weeks, a social worker carried chairs outside to the paved playground encircled by a chain-link fence and convened a self-empowerment group for girls who, in this inner-city neighbourhood called Bedford-Stuyvesant, suffered from low self-esteem about their futures and their bodies.

"Before, I had a terrible outlook on life," said one of these girls, Lateefah. "Now I'm not wasting my time on nothing. I'm going straight for what I need."

Other students, too, seemed to like the school immediately. "It's fun and small and it's loose," said one, Moses, who added that he was convinced it would help him to reach his unwavering goal of going to university.

Reality bites

Three years later, things were very, very different.

Moses had grades so low he was at risk of dropping out, provoking his mother to break down in sobs. Lateefah had left in frustration. So had many of the teachers, including Raven. Some students stole a laptop computer in the middle of the school day. Another was caught in the crossfire of a nearby robbery and shot in the arm, prompting an impassioned debate over whether to set up metal detectors.

Of the 104 students in the inaugural class, only 60 were left, and only half of those were on track to graduate.

"I'm not as optimistic as I was when we started," said Greer, clearly deflated. "For years I loved my job and now I don't. There's nothing to love about trying to do some stuff and having everybody resist it."

BCAM's story is told in an ambitious documentary film, The New Public, which exposes the realities of urban education in the US and is making the rounds of American teaching associations and teacher training institutions.

The moral is simple, says Anand Marri, an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, one of the nation's foremost teacher training providers: there are no right answers to the question of how to fix the system.

"Unlike other documentaries where there's a very clear direction, this film allows for multiple viewpoints on the role of community, the role of parents, the role of kids, the role of teachers, the role of administrators as ways of thinking about urban public education," says Marri, who once taught in secondary education himself and is so impressed with The New Public that he is incorporating it into the Columbia teacher training curriculum.

"Everybody feels like they know high schools because they went to high school," he says. "But teaching high school was the hardest job I've ever done. And this is showing that it's not easy. You have to understand the cultural context and the milieu that you're working in."

That was a particular challenge in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a slowly gentrifying, predominantly black area of Brooklyn, whose previous starring role on film was in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. Although the once-high crime rate has been substantially reduced, it's still a tough place to grow up.

Ninety-six per cent of the students at BCAM are black or Hispanic. …

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