Picturing Their Lives

When students turned a photographic eye on their schools, the reality of budget shortfalls came sharply into focus.

April 19, 2005|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Eager to try out her first camera, Kayla DeRusha looked around her school halls for something to shoot. But she didn't photograph her girlfriends. She wanted to use every bit of film to expose a surprising side of her elite high school.

Her snapshots, simple but bleak, show an ancient bathroom sink, a tangle of outdated computer wiring and a crumbling classroom floor at City College. In one picture, a teenage girl sits, huddled in her winter coat, in front of a broken heater. In another, two signs: "Library" and "Closed."

"This is the library where students of excellence come to be turned away because there are no books to be checked out," Kayla, 16, wrote in a poignant essay accompanying the photo. "The only real use for this space is for after-school rehearsals or as a hiding place for students who cut class. Welcome to my library."

It is one of 50 black-and-white portraits of life in Baltimore's public schools that make up a revealing documentary exhibit on display this month at Gallery 1448 in East Baltimore.

Taken by schoolchildren who were taught basic photography and given point-and-shoot cameras, the pictures chronicle the disrepair and neglect in Baltimore's public schools.

There are photographs of broken toilets, lead-contaminated fountains, desolate playgrounds. One picture is of a television set, turned on in a biology class, a stark reminder of the challenges faced by an 88,000-student district that consistently ranks near the bottom in Maryland for academic performance.

Yet scattered among them are moments of joy, photos that capture the resilience of inner-city children determined to learn even in dismal surroundings. Several students focused on inspiring teachers; others, vivid art murals or science projects. One snapshot shows a long list of college acceptances posted on a bulletin board at City College, known for its academic rigor and distinguished alumni.

"We didn't want to just pan the schools," said Adam Levner, 30, who coached the middle- and high-school students in documentary techniques. "But there are things that obviously need to be addressed, that speak to just how drastic the underfunding has been."

He and a college friend, Heather Rieman, 31, dreamed up the project two years ago while talking about how often urban schools get shortchanged. Eventually, they both quit their jobs and devoted nearly a year to recording what city schools look like.

Levner and Rieman, both amateur photographers who live in Washington, figured the best way to illustrate the often obscure debate over funding inequities would be through the eyes of schoolchildren. Their idea reflects the growing popularity of children's photography as a form of documentary. Earlier this year, Born Into Brothels, a film featuring candid snapshots by children in Calcutta's red-light district, won an Academy Award.

"A lot of policymakers never set foot in these schools. They don't know what it's like," said Rieman, who was on a fellowship at the U.S. Education Department when they began planning the project.

Levner, a community organizer at a Washington nonprofit, agreed. He had seen how well-run affluent private schools can be when he taught briefly at the Potomac School in northern Virginia.

Baltimore was a natural choice, Levner said, since its 184 public schools long have been mired in bitter court and legislative battles over chronic funding shortages.

He and Rieman could see the evidence everywhere: in old brick buildings full of peeling paint, in trash-strewn stairwells and concrete playgrounds.

They teamed with Community Law in Action, a youth advocacy program in Baltimore, and landed a $12,500 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In short order, they had purchased dozens of 35 mm Canon cameras and began teaching students from Community Law in Action programs, as well as an after-school program in Reservoir Hill and at Crossroads Middle School, a charter school east of the Inner Harbor.

The students' assignment was simple: Photograph the best and worst of their schools.

Initially, Levner and Rieman hoped to illustrate the disparities between city and suburban schools. But they had trouble finding better-funded schools willing to participate. Eventually, they hooked up with an after-school program for immigrant girls in Takoma Park in Montgomery County.

Photographs by two of the students at Takoma Park are in the exhibit: a well-stocked library and a sleek gym. But the girls are mostly from poor Latino, African and Caribbean immigrant families who live in crowded apartments on the edge of the hip, artistic town. They see their own share of inequalities.

Before she began shooting, student Bessie Moreno brainstormed with Levner. "I want to get into how there aren't any Spanish kids in the magnet class. How we're still separate," said Bessie, whose parents are Salvadoran and Ecuadorean. But she wasn't allowed to photograph the class.

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