'School Colors' depicts halls of anger with a glimmer of hope

October 18, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Anger and promise.

Those are the themes that run through "School Colors," a 2 1/2 -hour documentary about a year in the life of a modern-day high school. It kicks off the season of "Frontline" at 9 tonight on MPT (channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26).

The documentary ranges from insightful to touching to occasionally predictable. But most of all, if you went to high school, have a child in high school or work in one, "School Colors" will ring bells -- lots of bells.

The filmmakers spent a year at Berkeley (Calif.) High School. They found that the students -- particularly male -- are angry a lot of the time, and they carry their anger around like a hall pass.

Many students also show incredible promise and talent, in the classroom and out.

The student population of Berkeley High is 38 percent white, 35 percent African-American, 11 percent Asian-Pacific Islander, 9 percent Hispanic and 7 percent mixed race.

Everybody in this school thinks about race, racial attitudes, segregation, multiculturalism and social interaction. Everyone also thinks about violence, which is a fact of life at Berkeley High.

The teachers are presented mainly as saints -- talented, conscientious, fair, dedicated, tireless. It's a little shocking when you find out that some have been assaulted by students.

But then, some of the best students have been assaulted, too. One female students leaves school because she has been attacked so often. She is put in an independent study program, where she is supposed to learn on her own.

The school's new principal seems like a well-meaning man who works to promote racial harmony. But he comes off as totally ineffectual.

We see him in discussions with teachers, parents and students, saying, "Of course, people have to be safe in school." But he does almost nothing to make it happen. At Berkeley High, safety is a goal, a dream -- but definitely not a reality.

In fact, this guy can't even see to it that the school's bathrooms are cleaned. They look like they belong in the New York subway system, not a middle-class, progressive California high school.

Students talk with some insight about racial attitudes and racial tension, but most still self-segregate socially -- white kids eat only with whites, African-American kids eat only with African-Americans, and so on.

This is happening at a school that, in the early 1960s, was one of the first to bus students voluntarily to achieve integration.

The filmmakers seem to be saying that while we might have installed mechanisms aimed at fostering integration and social harmony, we are still far apart. And, if these students are our future, that's not about to change.

The film challenges viewers to think about whether any real progress has been made.

Yes, high schools like this one do encourage classroom discussions about race, class and attitudes. That did not happen in many high schools 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.

But it's not right that drugs, weapons and rage make their way unchecked through the front door every morning as easily as three-ring binders and book bags.

The greatest accomplishment of "School Colors" is that it captures both the anger and the idealism of students and faculty. There's more anger than there is idealism. But there's also more idealism than there are answers. Neither the film nor anyone at Berkeley High seems to have any of those.

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