The plight of children who attend struggling urban public schools is one of the most important social issues facing America today.
What inspired you to make the documentary?
We have a long history of working with HBO on problems of education. We have long felt, and continue to feel, that the plight of children who attend struggling urban public schools is one of the most important social issues facing America today. These schools are typically in high-poverty communities, composed of overwhelmingly minority student populations, characterized by less-qualified teachers and have far fewer financial resources than the public schools most white children attend. Some critics would call this story an American tragedy, as this failure to educate these youngsters almost certainly consigns them to a life of diminished expectations.
I thought it was time for someone to address the impact of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. One of the main challenges of NCLB is to address the problems of the achievement gap for minority students. I was really shocked to learn that there is a five-year discrepancy between minority students and Caucasian students, meaning that African-American and Latino students graduate from high school with a seventh- or eighth-grade reading level. How did this happen, and why is this allowed to exist? I felt that a documentary on minority education would take this law quite literally by focusing on the children who are being left behind.
You've tackled the subject of public education for HBO before.
In the early 1990s, we produced and directed "I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School," which won an Academy Award(r) for Best Feature Documentary. The film depicted a year in the life of a struggling inner-city elementary school in North Philadelphia, a high-poverty neighborhood. The children were five to ten years in age. They were very young and full of promise, as our title suggested. Hard Times at Douglass High in some ways continues the story, but the students featured in the film are in a West Baltimore high school, a high-poverty community similar to North Philadelphia.
I think the two films are very interconnected. Sadly, public education hasn't improved very much for children in this socio-economic situation. High school students do present many more challenges to everyone - teachers, parents and even their friends. Teenagers have jobs, perhaps active sex lives, possible drug abuse or peer pressure to join gangs, but the core issues remain the same - one of the most crucial being that few of these students can read.
Why did you choose Frederick Douglass High School?
We spent a lot time researching the film by visiting cities that we felt had representative urban schools. And we did visit a lot of interesting schools, many of which would have worked fine as the setting for the documentary. We chose Baltimore and Frederick Douglass High School for a number of reasons. We had some serious permissions and access issues to overcome with this film. We wanted to be given the freedom to film in an unrestricted way and for an extended period of time. Most of the principals we met were apprehensive about letting us in their schools under those conditions. Isabelle Grant, the principal at Douglass, was very comfortable having us there and basically let us film whatever we wanted for the entire academic year, a period of ten months.
One of the nicest things about Frederick Douglass High School was that under principal Grant, the school had a friendly, family atmosphere that you felt the moment you came through the door.
Douglass was the opposite of the cliche-ridden notion that large urban high schools are somehow these dangerous hellholes with gangs roaming the halls. It was a nice school with no metal detectors, and Mrs. Grant was kind of a maternal figure and surrogate mother to many of her students. However, having a nice school setting doesn't guarantee academic success. That's another matter.
I felt that the school's history made Douglass an obvious choice. I realized that the entire history of minority education could be told in one school, dating from its status in 1883 as a historically black school. We had the ability to chronicle American public education for African-Americans from segregation to Brown v. Board of Education to No Child Left Behind. Discovering that Douglass was the alma mater of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was an amazing addition to the story. So, Douglass is really an exceptional school.
No, there isn't any 'magic bullet' solution offered in the film for schools like Douglass. We feel strongly that offering simple solutions to complex problems is inherently misleading in documentary filmmaking.
How representative is Frederick Douglass compared to other high schools?
We feel that Douglass is very typical of large urban high schools throughout the country, and it's important to understand that this documentary is not about the failings of the Baltimore City Public School System alone. There are struggling high schools like Douglass in every major city in the United States, and all of them share a core group of issues.
Most of these schools are now more segregated than ever since federal courts began dismantling Brown v. Board of Education almost 20 years ago. Some critics like Jonathan Kozol even call this a "system of apartheid," and with a 100% African-American student body, Douglass is no exception. National studies have repeatedly shown that an alarmingly high amount of minority students entering urban high schools are performing, on average, four years below grade level. These are the kind of enormous problems that influential foundations have been trying to address, with mixed success.
Other important issues these schools have in common are a terrible lack of resources, including textbooks and student access to working computers. There is a shortage of qualified teachers in these schools, and this situation alone creates tremendous academic shortcomings. These schools all have astoundingly high drop-out rates - around 50% of those entering never complete their education and graduate. As a result, Douglass, like one-fourth of the nation's public schools, cannot meet the demands of No Child Left Behind.
It is my hope that people will see Douglass as an example of an urban public high school and not specific to the city of Baltimore. The film hopefully will provoke a discussion on the struggles educators face in meeting the No Child Left Behind mandates, which are tremendous obstacles for any educator, as well as the problems occurring in big cities.
Were you able to arrive at any solutions in the film?
No, there isn't any "magic bullet" solution offered in the film for schools like Douglass. We feel strongly that offering simple solutions to complex problems is inherently misleading in documentary filmmaking. The problems and challenges faced by urban schools like Douglass are enormous, and there is no one simple solution to making them more effective schools and improving their graduation rates.
We choose to make documentaries on social issues that are overlooked by the mainstream media. There needs to be an open dialogue regarding education in America. The problems are enormous and we are failing generations of young people. Change will take time, but it is up to everyone to start talking about what those solutions should be - educators, politicians, families and presidential candidates.
What happened at Douglass after you finished filming?
The school did not meet the adequate yearly progress standards set by No Child Left Behind for several years in a row, and under this situation the state had the right to restructure. At Douglass, the entire administration was replaced, including the principal. Then Baltimore City brought in an academic partner - the Center for Social Organization (CSOS) at Johns Hopkins University - to help raise the academic standards at the school, with special attention to ninth graders. It will most likely take a number of years before any dramatic results are achieved.
The restructuring caused many teachers and support staff to leave as well. The school has a new principal and with that a new atmosphere. We documented the end of an era, and now Douglass begins another chapter in its long history. The school now has metal detectors and a uniform dress code, among other changes.
What is principal Isabelle Grant doing now?
She retired from the Baltimore City School system and is now the head pastor of a church in Baltimore.
2008 Documentary Films Series