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."