Schooled in triumph, failure

Filmmakers had to gain students' trust by showing their dignity

June 22, 2008|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond were already steeped in the reality of urban education long before they came to Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School in 2004 to film Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card.

Their 1993 HBO film, I am a Promise: The Children on Stanton Elementary Schoo l, a searing look at life in a troubled Philadelphia institution, won Oscar, Emmy, Peabody and Robert F. Kennedy awards - as clean a sweep as any American documentary has ever enjoyed.

Such honors were nothing new to the Raymonds, who along with Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles brothers are considered the masters of cinema-verite filmmaking. Their resume reaches back to An American Family, the 1973 PBS film that some critics see as the start of reality TV.

But even they had something to learn about urban education and the students at Douglass before the teenagers started to open up, Susan Raymond says.

"First of all, you have to get them to trust you, and that took us a long while in this school," she says.

"I thought as first it had to do with the fact that we were from another place - we're white people going into a black cultural situation."

But after spending several weeks in the school, she came to see that she was wrong. The epiphany came when a student who she had never seen before - and would never see again - popped up behind her one day in a hallway and asked, "Are you going to make us look dumb."

"And I thought, 'That's the issue. That's why they're guarded. It has nothing to do with race differences that are going on here. They know they're a low-performing school,'" Susan Raymond says.

"That was an honest statement, wasn't it? Wasn't that right to the core?"

The Raymonds say they knew from that point on that they were going to have to "throw a lifeline" to the students if they wanted to get inside their lives.

"We knew we would have to let them show us their strengths, show their personalities, show us they are capable - give them some dignity and respect and prove that we're not just popping in here and leaving," Susan Raymond says.

And so, viewers see one student whose life is transformed by his success in the Baltimore Urban Debate League, while another drops out altogether with a string of expletives delivered to the camera. The filmmakers say they wanted to try and capture the full range of student experiences at Douglass.

"The success stories are important, but it's also important to tell the stories about the problem kids," says Alan Raymond, explaining why one of the students featured in the film is a 17-year-old who has repeated the ninth grade several times.

"It was very important to put a human face on the kids who are drifting away or dropping out altogether during the year," he says.

"It was important to follow the trajectory of a student who they didn't in fact save, who probably wasn't going to make it. He's the face of a statistic that many urban schools seem to share, and you have to tell that story, too, to have any sense of the reality of life within a school like Douglass."

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