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June 24, 2008

A realistic portrait of Frederick Douglass High

To those of you who work in, attend or send your child to one of Baltimore's tougher schools, last night's "Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card" on HBO probably didn't bring many surprises. To the large portion of middle-class America that has no direct interaction with inner-city schools -- and that includes many of the members of Congress who will be charged with reauthorizing NCLB -- it's a real eye-opener. I hope the politicians were watching.

In two hours, the documentary covers virtually every challenge facing an urban school. The boy repeating ninth grade who refused to go to his remedial reading class. The statistics on how many ninth-graders need remedial reading -- all but three or four of more than 300 tested, and most come in at a third-, fourth- or fifth-grade level. The virtually empty classrooms on back-to-school night. The tardiness, the hall wandering and truancy (200-300 absent daily in a school of 1,100). The girl who just had a baby and was feeling overwhelmed to be back at school. The frustrated, overwhelmed teacher who quit in the middle of the year. The fights. The fact that only half of the school's 500 freshmen would return for sophomore year. The fact that 66 percent of the school's teachers were not certified. The boy who told his teacher to pass him for doing "nothin'."  The dismal SAT scores (one student scored a 440 out of 1,600, and you get 200 points for writing your name; only one student in the school scored above 1,000). The students who sat for the High School Assessments but didn't write anything (this was before the tests counted for graduation, but they still counted for a school's AYP). The pressure at the end of the year for teachers to pass failing seniors: Within a few days, the school went from having 138 eligible graduates to 200. The triumph of graduation for students from unspeakably awful home lives: One boy didn't need any graduation tickets because he didn't have anyone to come.

The film also touches on the triumphs of the school, though there are fewer. It takes you inside the classroom of an excellent teacher. It features the school's award-winning music program. It follows a student on the debate team who's determined to make something of his life.

Of all the schools in America to feature in a film like this, Frederick Douglass was a symbolic choice. It is the alma mater of Thurgood Marshall, and more than a half-century after Marshall won the Brown vs. Board of Ed case, Douglass is still a school that's separate and unequal. No Child Left Behind provides the backdrop for "Hard Times," but the film could just as easily stand as a profile of the school without that context. Coincidentally (or not), after filming was completed -- the documentary was shot during the 2004-2005 school year -- Douglass became one of 11 Baltimore schools that the state tried to take over as a result of repeated years of failure on standardized tests. It was the first time a state attempted such drastic action under NCLB. The move was blocked by the General Assembly, and the school system restructured Douglass on its own, replacing the administration and implementing the Talent Development school model. I was surprised, though, that the film made it sound as though Isabelle Grant, the principal during the year the documentary was shot, was the one who was replaced. Grant was forced to resign during the 2005-2006 school year in connection with an academically ineligible student being allowed to play football and the school football team having to forfeit its first winning season since 1998. Students who looked to her like a mother were heartbroken when she left. The principal who replaced her was the one to be removed when the school was restructured.

Oscar-winning filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond clearly spent a lot of time at the school to get students comfortable being around them and the camera. None of the scenes seemed like it would have played out any differently if the subjects weren't being videotaped. In an article in The Sun on Sunday, the Raymonds said the students were initially afraid the film would make them look dumb, and they had to spend time focusing on their successes as a result. But the overall picture is pretty bleak. I'd be interested to know (if anyone associated with Douglass is reading) the school's reaction to "Hard Times."

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:41 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Baltimore City, NCLB


Ms. Neufeld,
Thanks for your comments on this. You've captured the essence of the film - and, more importantly the problem - beautifully.

This was a familiar documentary. Even though it was made three years ago, I currently live these same scenes over and over daily as a Baltimore City Guidance Counselor in a neighborhood high school. It's sad and frustrating. There is no one simple solution to stop the bleeding; and I mean that literally. There was a Sun report not too long ago that basically stated that kids who are "out of school" are more likely to become victims of violent crimes or become involved in a crme. I know this to be true after one of my former students, who abruptly stopped coming to school last year, was shot several times, and another student was charged with stabbing (attempted murder) the barber student at the bus stop downtown. I worked with this young man (who allegedly commited that senseless crime) regularly, but the pull of Bloods gang that they both chose to become a member of, was a much stronger influence than I could've ever been. I went through the "what if anything could I have done differently" thought process before accepting the fact that there was not much more I could do with the limited resources that I had. Just prior to the incident, the latter student was placed on long term suspension for not following school rules (again). Shortly after that, I heard his name on the morning news.This was his senior year! He was supposed to be walking across the stage soon to embark on a new life of promises. Instead, he faces attempted murder chages. My prayers go out to the young barber student and his family. I face each day with the motto: "Do what you can with what you have and hope and pray for the best".

While the documentary did capture many of the challenges faced by students and staff in our neighborhood high schools, I found it to be poorly done. I don't think they proved their thesis regarding NCLB. It was almost as if NCLB was an afterthought or a gimmick to get their documentary funded and aired. That's not to say that our schools aren't suffering under NCLB, just that this documentary wasn't especially well-done. I also had a hard time with the misinformation about Ms. Grant's dismissal. That glaring error caused me to question the integrity, or research skills, of the Raymonds.

It will be interesting to see what progress is made or not made after the state takeover. I have yet to see any 2008 assessment results.

Frederick Douglass is a portrait of what is going on throughout the entire nation with minority students, particularly African American students. I thought the film was an accurate portrayal of what goes on everyday in schools, not just in Baltimore, but also in Texas, where I'm from, and I imagine many other places. It should be a wakeup call for us to do more, however, what that is, I don't know.


I totally agree with your point. I expected to see more highlights rather than low lights :( ) about the lack of funding schools receive to tackle this big elephant in the room that the state would like to pretend is not there. He's not hard to recognize. He's African-American, male and through no fault of his own, probably living in poverty. By the time he's 9 years old, he's still learning how to read while his more affluent counterparts are steadily gaining knowlege because, they are already reading more to learn. The state's "powers that be" only recognize him when they decide how many additional jail cells to build in rural Maryland counties. After he's been charged with a crime, judges scratch their heads and wonder where did this kid come from as if he has not been here on earth for 17 years, and as if there is no direct correlation between the lack of a quality education and crime! While I don't agree with always throwing money at the problem, (I've definitely seen it wasted) I also do not agree with Baltimore city schools without enough quality teachers, computer labs, or students without textbooks to take home. I worked in a "well to do" area in a Maryland county a few years ago. When the "elephant" stepped its foot in the door (please take no offense to the analogy, it only represents how big the problem is) of that school house, it seems an alarm would sound and the staff immediately set up individual learning plans as interventions and gave each child, white , black , latino, whatever- the remediation services they needed. By 4th grade, these kids were on grade level. Yes, it took additional staff and money but not much in materials; no fancy computerized programs (some teachers simply used workbooks and flash cards), but yes they DID have take home workbooks. However, it was the dedication of the staff who were treated as professionals (not having to back door books from other schools) that made the true difference. Don't Baltimore City kids deserve the same? In the documentary, the system watched this kid fail several times over (17 years old in the 9th grade) and I'm sure his reading deficiency did not start in the 9th grade. I'm curious to know how much remediation or intervention services he received prior to high school. I would bet NONE because the NCLB says we can't leave him behind, but Baltimore City passed him anyway because there was no teacher to stay behind with him to make sure he gets what he needs due to a lack of funding. It's the lesser of two evils. For those of you who would like to blame parents, what do you say when I tell you that his parents may have split a long time ago, so blaming them isn't solving anything. Those parents that can- should, but for our children without parents (the thousands upon thousands) it is our responisibilty to ensure that they don't go without a quality education too.

What was the misinformation about Ms. Grant's dismissal?

Urban education should be blown up and started anew. The thug culture has taken it over and shows no signs of letting up. Because a child is school age school does not necessitate that he or she is school material. The "pimp-n-ho" culture, with its values of "sex, drugs and violence," is what so so many WILLINGLY CHOOSE to engage in. Scrape them off. The world needs losers too. I have 17 years in just such a system and schools. Without discipline (expulsions aplenty), nothing will change. NOTHING.

People have to remember that this is an old film of the old Douglass. I am a 12th grader there and everything is going wonderful now that we have our new principal, certified teachers, and new staff. Its like the perfect transformation, similar to the quote " from Rags to Riches." we have a number of students that have been inducted into the National Honor Society and many more academic achievment groups. We're really showing our improvement and wish that the filmakers would come back and show the world wat we have become because i know everyone is lookinng for a follow-up or part 2...

hello all and my admin, very nice share and good job thank you

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