'Hard Times' gets high marks for realism
By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
The kids are what you remember.
For all the powerful imagery and revealing real-life conversation in HBO's Hard Times at Douglass High: ANo Child Left Behind Report Card, the students at the storied Baltimore high school are the ones that stick in your mind long after the final credits roll. The two-hour cinema-verite look at life inside one urban school as it tries to accommodate the controversial 2001 legislation that mandates improvement on standardized tests is steeped in politics.
How could it not be in dealing with matters as racially, economically and emotionally charged as the performance of students and teachers at an underfunded city school who are trying to meet standards set by a Republican president and members of both parties in Congress?
But in the highly skilled hands of Academy Award-winning filmmakers Susan and Alan Raymond, the politics quickly fade to the background, while the struggles and triumphs of students named Sharnae, Jordan and Matt come to the forefront.
Think of the fourth season of HBO's The Wire, when the series was at the top of its dramatic game exploring the sociology of public education in Baltimore by making its audience care about students named Randy, Dukie and Namond.
The stories here are even more compelling because they're real and the filmmakers are fearless in telling the truth about how these kids are betrayed - and how some still manage to achieve.
The depiction of Sharnae, a junior at Douglass, is representative of the way the Raymonds take complex issues faced by city schools and make them personal. The 16-year-old aspiring rap artist looks like Snoop, the androgynous drug enforcer on The Wire, but this young woman is trying to stay away from guns, drugs and crime.
"I'm on my own, trying to just survive," she says in the film, explaining that she lives by herself without any help from a parent. "I can't name one person who lives in a home with the mother and the father. I wish I could."
Cut to the auditorium at Douglass on Back to School Night. The camera shows the principal, Isabella Grant (a Douglass graduate herself), at the podium enthusiastically welcoming the parents to the school. But then, the camera pans back to reveal only a handful of parents in the hall.
"This is par for the course," a science teacher says one scene later, explaining that only one parent visited his classroom during the back-to-school event.
"You get used to it," an English teacher in the homeroom next door chimes in after testifying to the same kind of parent absenteeism.
A woeful lack of basic textbooks and access to computers would be a large enough mountain for any high school student to climb, but as the film clearly shows, many of these kids are trying to do it with little or no help from home.
Saying that the blame extends beyond teachers and administrators is political, and a lot of politicians avoid saying such things for fear of alienating the parents - who also happen to be voters. But the Raymonds scrupulously document the lack of parental involvement in image and testimony, and then present it without commentary. That is the heart of cinema-verite documentary filmmaking. It is also essentially the opposite of so much media today, particularly cable TV and the Internet, which is dominated by opinion and commentary unsupported by the reporting needed to find and confirm the facts.
Along with Frederick Wiseman and Albert and David Maysles, the Raymonds are considered the masters of the genre defined by its fly-on-the-wall, limited-narration approach to storytelling. On the rare occasions in Hard Times when you hear a voiceover, pay attention. It's Susan Raymond, and she is saying something profound.
One such crystalline moment of synthesis comes 13 minutes into the film as the camera shows students walking past a statue of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a graduate of the school that traces its pedigree to 1883.
As a lawyer, Marshall won the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education case that outlawed school desegregation in 1954.
"As the students pass through the entranceway, a statue of Thurgood Marshall looks over a school that 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education is racially and economically segregated - and once again, separate and not equal."
Hard Times at Douglass High supports that sad and shocking statement a dozen different ways - and then makes your heart ache for the toll taken in hopes, dreams, self-esteem and lives because of it.
For all the churn and disruption that No Child Left Behind has generated in teaching careers and curriculum, the education reform act hasn't made a dent in that larger multigenerational tragedy, according to this stirring film.
Copyright © 2008
Film shows Baltimore school struggling despite No Child law
The Associated Press
BALTIMORE - The law is called No Child Left Behind, but anyone who claims it's living up to its billing probably hasn't spent much time at Frederick Douglass High School.
Veteran documentary filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond did, gathering footage at the historic west Baltimore school during the 2004-05 school year. What they saw left them certain that for inner-city schools to succeed, they need more than standardized tests that measure students' reading and math skills.
Their film, "Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card," premieres Monday on HBO.
The Raymonds won an Academy Award for best documentary feature for 1993's "I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School," shot at a school in north Philadelphia. They decided to revisit urban education in the wake of No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration's signature education policy that took effect in 2002.
"We realized that this was a very profound piece of policy that was going to change the face of public education in America and that we should go back and look at what's happening," Susan Raymond said. "These are the children who are going to be left behind."
With their unvarnished observations of life inside Douglass' walls, the Raymonds capture the myriad challenges of educating children in impoverished urban neighborhoods. Students show up at school but never report for class, instead roaming the halls. Teachers complain they can't assign homework because they don't have enough textbooks for students to take home. And the principal labors under the knowledge that if test scores don't improve, she'll be replaced.
Established in 1883 as the Colored High and Training School, Douglass is the nation's second-oldest high school built specifically for African-Americans. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall is among the alumni. Yet today, more than 50 years after Marshall successfully argued the case that desegregated the nation's schools, the student body at Douglass remains almost entirely black.
Moreover, because the middle class has long since abandoned west Baltimore, the majority of students at Douglass live in poverty. Two-parent households are rare. "I can't name one person that lives in a house with their mother and their father," a 16-year-old student named Sharnae says in the documentary.
The Raymonds, who got their start with the groundbreaking 1973 PBS documentary series "An American Family," chose Douglass in part because of its history and in part because the principal at the time, Isabelle Grant, was accommodating. The husband-and-wife team, plus a sound recordist, were given unfettered access. The filmmakers captured fights in the hallways. They watched as teachers struggled to maintain discipline, then vented to each other about the lack of resources. And they were in the locker room after Douglass' basketball team was knocked out of the state playoffs.
In one of many wrenching moments, an English teacher, Mr. McDermott, gets fed up and resigns in the middle of the school year. "Teaching becomes secondary, and discipline is the main thing that goes on," he says. "I don't feel like I'm making a difference anymore."
The film finds rays of hope. Douglass has a well-run music production program, a flourishing debate team and a spirited marching band, and some of the school's best students channel their energy into these outlets. And at the end of the 2004-05 school year, Douglass graduated 200 students , its largest graduating class in 10 years. Fifty of them went to college.
But the story didn't end there. The school continued to fall distressingly short of No Child Left Behind benchmarks. In 2006, 24.4 percent of Douglass students were found to be proficient in reading, while math proficiency was just 11.4 percent.
While those numbers represented an improvement over the previous year, they weren't enough to save Grant's job. The principal was forced to retire.
Grant said it was an "impossible task" to meet the proficiency standards, in part because Douglass began the school year shown in the film with two-thirds of its teachers not considered highly qualified. "It is utterly impossible to have youngsters pass a test when you do not have qualified teachers in those testing areas," Grant said.
Plus, "the class size at the beginning of the school year was huge. There were 40 to 50 kids in a class. ... We didn't have the appropriate funding from the federal government, nor the state."
At least in the short term, the removal of Grant didn't produce the desired results. Scores in the four subjects tested by the state were down in 2007, as was proficiency in reading. Math proficiency remained stagnant. And the graduation rate declined from 56 percent to 43.4 percent.
Principal Clark Montgomery was installed for the 2007-08 school year. While test scores for the recently concluded year are not yet available, Montgomery is confident more students passed. During his first year, Montgomery said, Douglass improved attendance and graduation rates, added more advanced classes and boosted its retention rate for ninth-graders to about 75 percent. In 2004-05, Douglass retained about half its ninth-graders; the rest either dropped out or transferred.
But if Douglass fails to boost test scores dramatically, it could face another leadership shake-up.
Alan Raymond came away from Douglass convinced that reform can't happen overnight.
"These are things that really can't happen easily. It takes work, and it takes resources and qualified teachers and time," Alan Raymond said. "That's what people have to realize, hopefully , these schools need our help."
In one particularly gripping scene of HBO's new documentary, Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card, Principal Grant tells her faculty, "If only 3 out of your 25 students can pass the test, we simply can't give you a proficient rating."
When the teachers respond alternately with glares, eye-rolling, and emphatic rebuttals, the principal holds her ground. "You've got 22 out of 25 students failing. That does not equal proficiency for a teacher."
On the face of it, Grant's point is hard to argue. A 12% pass rate is awful. Something is wrong. But is it substandard teaching? Unmotivated students? Meddling bureaucrats? A poisonous ghetto-culture environment? Absent parents? Out-of-touch federal legislation? Learned helplessness?
Academy Award-winning filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond are too smart to offer up any magic bullets. Their fascinating new feature-length documentary, premiering Monday, June 23 at 9 p.m. on HBO, puts viewers inside West Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School for a full school year. Hard Times at Douglass High delivers urgent subject matter with a punch; the medium of film brings a power to this story that no article or essay quite can.
Douglass High has history; it was one of the first all-black high schools in America and boasts Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as an alumnus. At the time of filming (the 2004-2005 school year), still-segregated Douglass held 1,100 students. Of those 1,100, five hundred are ninth-graders and only two hundred graduated twelfth grade. Nearly a third of those two hundred graduates required special last-minute academic considerations to be allowed to receive their diplomas.
The dropout figures are staggering, brought to vivid life by the Raymonds' honing in on several students as they struggle through the year. Seventeen-year-old Audie is in ninth-grade. He baffles teachers and administrators by coming to school, then refusing to enter a classroom. Occasionally he cracks a witty comment when one of the school's various disciplinarians attempts to collect him from his hallway roost. Audie's brain is sharp, but he has clearly decided that school has nothing to offer him. When teachers appeal to him, he shuts down. His future is terrifyingly bleak.
Early in the film, we meet Mr. McDermott, an impassioned ninth-grade English teacher in his third year at Douglass. His lessons resemble ones I've seen work well in schools in the Bronx. However, he receives blank stares from what he describes as the most challenging, unresponsive class he's ever had. His self-described finest moment was when he had five parents (out of twenty-five) visit him on Back to School Night. He's gone by second semester.
It's not all failure and dejection. Hard Times at Douglass High introduces us to Shanae, a tough-as-nails rapper (who contributes the driving song that plays under the opening titles) who is determined to succeed. We meet Jordan, a champion debater and first-class charmer, who speaks candidly about growing up without a father. We watch the defending state champion basketball play their biggest game of the season. We see the award-winning Cab Calloway (an alumnus) music program in action. And we see a lot of the loving, West Baltimore-born-and-bred principal, Isabelle Grant.
Ms. Grant, in her fourth year leading Douglass, is working her heart out just to get kids to show up (getting them in the door on time is an entirely different battle), let alone graduate and thrive. Only one student in the school had scored about 1000 on the SAT the previous year.
The challenges are immense. The students are struggling. The teachers are exhausted. The administration is stretched thin. The school is under-resourced. Many students are literally asleep with blank test packets in front of them on the day of the all-important High School Assessment exam.
Coming back to Ms. Grant's exhortation at the faculty meeting, is it the teachers' failure to teach proficiently that explains Douglass' abysmal test scores? Whatever the reason, at the year's end, the state fired Ms. Grant and her administration, took over the school, and installed metal detectors.
The ABCs of Failure
HBO Filmmakers Went Back to School, And What They Learned Was Sobering
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 23, 2008
The camera sweeps from the boarded-up and blighted buildings of West Baltimore, past the sign for Slick Rick's Bail Bonds and into the halls of Frederick Douglass High School, where every day, teachers struggle to mold reality to the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act. There -- in ways evocative of HBO's "The Wire" -- teachers find themselves butting up against scant resources and no shortage of apathy, often facing troubled teenagers who refuse to go to class but who show up for school just the same.
Unlike "The Wire," however, "Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card," which airs tonight at 9 on HBO, is pure documentary. The Oscar-winning husband-and-wife filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond take a cinema verite approach to a year (2005) in the life of a school under siege.
"It's not an entertainment doc," Alan Raymond says in an interview. "It's not reality TV. It's not a feel-good documentary."
Unless Douglass's standardized tests improve in the wake of President Bush's 2001 act, the historically black school -- which counts among its alumni Thurgood Marshall and Cab Calloway -- faces sanctions or closure. And meeting the requirements is the most Sisyphean of tasks.
At the time of filming, many of the students read at an elementary school level. More than 500 freshmen matriculate each year yet only 50 percent return for their sophomore year. Only 10 percent passed the reading proficiency tests; math scores are at 1 percent. Some 67 percent of the teachers are not certified.
The statistics are bleak, but hardly unique to Douglass. As the Raymonds see it, Douglass is just a stand-in for the American public education system as a whole.
"Urban education is a moral tragedy in this country," Alan Raymond says. "It is a system of public education that has essentially abandoned a large portion of this country. . . . We all know where that leads. It leads to consequences."
Adds Susan Raymond: "If you're depressed [after seeing the documentary], it means that we've succeeded."
For 10 months, the Raymonds hung out at the school, recording every nuance: Principal Isabelle Grant, a Douglass graduate herself, patrolling the halls, stopping to hug a student or urging latecomers to class. Sparsely attended PTA meetings. Teachers scrambling to come up with basic supplies. A teacher describing how she struck a deal on the down low with a teacher at another school to score some much-needed textbooks: "I met her at the back door," she says.
Then there's Sharnae, a young aspiring rapper, describing her life at 16: "Home is a place where you lay your head. . . . I've been independent myself for five years. I don't know anyone living with their mother and father. . . . I wish my life was different."
There was a time when life at Douglass was different. Operating since 1883, it is one of the nation's oldest historically African American high schools -- a draw for Baltimore's best and brightest black students at a time when Jim Crow ruled the day. In one of life's little ironies, Marshall took Brown v. Board of Education to the Supreme Court, winning the case and desegregating schools across the country; with integration, the black middle class scattered to the suburbs, leaving inner city schools like Douglass behind. As Susan Raymond notes in a voice-over, Douglass "is once again separate and unequal."
The Raymonds initially weren't aware of Douglass's history. They had searched the country to find the right school with the right fit for their documentary. But it took a while before they could find a school willing to open its doors. "Access for this type of filmmaking is very hard to get," Alan Raymond says. "To tell a school board you want to be able to go into an urban school" and film everything "usually struck terror in the hearts of the people we asked."
As 30-year documentary veterans, the Raymonds know a little something about getting unrestricted access to their subjects. In the 1970s, they pioneered the first reality TV series, eavesdropping on the lives of the Loud family for PBS's "An American Family"; 10 million viewers watched the Louds' marriage crumble while coming to terms with their chronicling everything from divorce to a gay son's coming out. Over the decades, the Raymonds kept in touch with the Louds, filming their lives in "American Family Revisited" (1983) and "Lance Loud! A Death in an American Family" (2003). ("Hard Times," the Loud family series and documentaries were screened in their entirety at Silverdocs last week.) In 1994, the Raymonds won an Academy Award for another documentary tackling urban education: "I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School."
"We've been doing this a very long time," Susan Raymond says. "When we film, that's the fun part."
"Lots of fights in the editing room," Alan Raymond adds. "Big-time fights." (The Raymonds are based in Philadelphia and have a son, who is in college.)
On Friday, the Douglass High School marching band pranced through the streets of downtown Silver Spring, tubas blaring, drumline thumping, flag corps twirling the school's orange, blue and white colors, across Georgia Avenue and into the auditorium of the AFI Cultural Center for the world premiere of "Hard Times." Afterward, the audience cheered Grant, Douglass's beleaguered principal, who has since retired, and applauded Matt Lampart, a Douglass graduate featured in the film who's entering his junior year at Morgan State University.
" 'The Wire' painted in broad strokes what the school system is like," says Matt McDermott, a former English teacher at Douglass who became disillusioned and left the school during filming. "This filled in a lot of the facts."
'HARD TIMES AT DOUGLASS HIGH'
A High School Finds Itself Left Behind and Drowning
By NEIL GENZLINGER
TELEVISION REVIEW | New York Times
Published: June 23, 2008
. . . . Bureaucrats can make all the rules and set all the benchmarks they want, but none of it will change anything if no one can be found to do the hands-on work of teaching. As seen in this film, it’s not just a thankless job; it looks disconcertingly as if it might be an impossible one.
Hard Times at Douglass High
Micki Free Update
Grudgingly, I watched the HBO documentary Hard Times at Douglass High last night.
Grudgingly because I knew what I would see, and was afraid the filmmakers would turn it into a screed on the failure of the public school system and leave it at that. To their credit, the documentarians let the situation speak for itself for the most part. The lack of overwhelming commentary was a smart move in this instance.
But it was still tough to watch, mostly because I’m from Baltimore and am intimately familiar with Frederick Douglass High, as is nearly every African American in Baltimore. That’s because for well into 1950s, Douglass was one of only two high schools that Blacks could attend (the other being the basketball powerhouse Dunbar). If you’re 35 or over, your Mama or Daddy went to Douglass, just like every lawyer, doctor, judge, elected official, businessman, government worker and successful middle and upper middle class striver.
I remember as a kid flipping through my Mom’s Class of 1945 Yearbook and seeing the young faces of what eventually became the creme of the crop of Baltimore’s Black professional class. Later, I have fond memories of walking by Douglass after school and seeing my oldest brother practicing in his sparkling orange and blue baseball uniform and bragging to my friends about him being the team hero. That was about 1968, 60 or so.
And then…just a few years later, it was my tutn to pick a high school (circa 1975) and Douglass wasn’t an afterthought. It was in fact, a deal-breaker. The idea that I would go to Douglass as the closest neighborhood was the single reason I decided to test for a magnet school. Douglass just as not an option for me, my parents or any of the parents we knew. Only after 7, 8 years tops.
And now, this documentary and the sad facts: 1 out 1100 students passed Algebra. 158 out of 500 freshmen graduated four years later. 105 parents (guardians/aunts/whatever) out of 1100 or more on PTA night showed up.
Sure, you can put a hefty part of the blame on Baltimore’s public school system and the availability of resources. But that would be way too easy. Baltimore’s story - like other cities is just more complicated than that.
Here’s my take on the problems:
1. Integration: Not integration itself, but the opportunities and the attitudes created by segregation. The caged mentality that made people who had the means chomp at the bit to get out of predominantly black (or all black) neighborhoods. But this is not a new story. What happened to the surrounding neighborhood happened to Douglass. Time was when parents would not let you play with the next door neighbor’s kids if that kid’s parents kept an unclean house, or walked the street in curlers, cursing at the children. With the flight of the black middle class went the sense of values, the strong sense of education as the center of mobility - blah, blah, blah - you know the story.
2. Opportunity: Coupled with the above, again those who were prepared made the leap. Those who were not are the foundation of what is left.
3. Crack meets the fall of industry. Bethlehem Steel, McCormick Spices, Hutzler’s, Black & Decker - these were the lynchpins of middle class entry. As their fortunes decreased, so did the chances for the less than skilled. And hence the entry of angel dust, then wack (an ugly mix of oregano and embalming fluid), then coke, then crack and Baltimore’s dominance as a central hub of dope commerce between Miami and New York. The lethal cultural mix killed off (literally and figuratively) a whole generation.
4. Apathy. What’s so crazy about Douglass’ and Baltimore’s amazing teacher shortage is that directly across the street from Douglass - and I mean directly across the street is Coppin State University. Formerly known as Coppin State Teachers College. Teaching and social work are still what that university is known for. How does a Douglass happen with that resource across the street? Last month when I visited Baltimore, Coppin was building a multi-gazillion dollar Phys Ed complex on the corner just adjacent to Douglass High. Let me say that again Phys.Ed. I’m not putting blame at the feet of an unrelated institution, but isn’t it indicative of at least a lack of initiative?
5. Parents and Lack Thereof. No Child Left Behind should be a parent’s mantra, not just the government’s. Enough said.
Posted by Sara Neufeld on June 24, 2008
Baltimore Sun reporters weigh in on news and issues in education
Douglass High documentary to air tonight | Main | Study shows shrinking achievement gaps
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.
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.
The real demons afflicting Douglass
June 28, 2008
Audie was the truculent guy, the one with the braided hair and grills in his teeth. About 25 minutes into the HBO documentary Hard Times at Douglass High, Audie pretty much summed up why the school named after one of the most erudite men of his or any century is having hard times.
"This what we do," Audie said about a bunch of students roaming the halls and standing around aimlessly. "Just walking the halls all day, baby. [Bleep] class. That [bleep's] for clowns, man. Don't nobody go to class around here, man. Man, [bleep] academics. Academics? We gon' leave that to them nerd-[bleep] [bleeps]. We gon' keep [bleep] straight 'hood. All my [bleeps] out here, we gon' keep it gutter."
Audie's pearl of wisdom took no more than a minute, but that's all he needed. The documentary, which I finally saw Thursday night, premiered Monday night and repeated all this week. Given HBO's schedule, you still have plenty of opportunity to catch rebroadcasts if you missed it.
Alan and Susan Raymond directed the documentary, which runs one hour, 50 minutes and some change. That's about an hour and 50 minutes too long, because Audie's little tirade pretty much says it all. But in case you have doubts, there are others in the documentary who tell why Douglass and other city schools have fallen on such "hard times."
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There's English teacher Mr. McDermott, who left Douglass after the first semester of the 2004-2005 school year, when the Raymonds filmed their documentary. School honchos at Douglass must have been punishing McDermott for some reason, because they gave him the unenviable task of teaching three ninth-grade English classes that year. He left after the first semester, burned out by being unable to teach because he had to spend too much class time just keeping order and discipline.
On Parents' Night, only five parents showed up to talk to McDermott. They were the parents of children who were doing well in his class. McDermott said he wanted to see - needed to see - the parents of children who were doing poorly. Science teacher Mr. Hunt saw one parent; world history teacher Mr. Woods saw four.
"When I was in school it was a bit different," Woods said. "Mom and Dad around the corner. Teachers packed. Everybody waiting to see teachers. But nowadays, kids and parents - at least in this community at this time - don't stress education like they used to."
Woods may be the bravest man in Baltimore. To utter such a thing - and in front of a camera - takes courage not seen much in these parts. Many would accuse Woods of "blaming the victim." You're not supposed to speak ill of poor black folks, you see. So Woods isn't supposed to say what he said. Nor are we to judge the girls shown in the film who had babies before they finished high school. Woes betide us if we suggest to them that they've increased their chances of remaining in poverty by having a child in their teens and out of wedlock.
When students talk about how either one or both parents are not vested in their education, we're supposed to ignore that. To offer any criticism at all is "demonizing poor black folks," you see. But there are at least two things far worse than demonizing poor black folks that we can do to them.
The first is romanticizing them. The second - and perhaps most harmful - is patronizing them. And patronize them we do, in a way that is insidiously cruel. Listen to what English department head Mr. Connally had to say in the documentary:
"We did our ninth-grade reading-level tests at the beginning of the year, and I think out of maybe 300, 400 students that were tested, our incoming ninth-graders, maybe three were on grade level. Most were in 5, 4.5 level. It's unrealistic to think that if you have a fifth-grade reading level that you're going to pass a 10th-grade reading test. It's baffled me for years that we've allowed this to go on. It's almost as if no one wanted to admit that the students were passed to high schools with third- and fourth-grade reading levels. And I'm not talking about special-education students, either. I'm talking about regular students in regular classes. It's a crime - been one for years."
The emphasis in that last sentence is all my own, the better to drive home Connally's point. This is a crime, perpetrated and aided and abetted by those who don't want to "demonize" poor black folks. As a former poor black person myself - who grew up in an era when all black folks were demonized, regardless of class - I'm left to ponder whether it's better to be demonized and well-educated, or patronized and miseducated.
Gee, now there's a tough one.