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Synopsis

Alan and Susan Raymond spent one year filming in Frederick Douglass High School, which has a rich history of successful alumni, including Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. Shot in classic cinema verité style, the film captures the complex realities of life at Douglass, and provides a context for the national debate over the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, focusing on the brutal inequalities of American minority education, considered an American tragedy by many.

Douglass principal Isabelle Grant oversees a staff of teachers that is two-thirds non-certified, while many are substitutes unqualified to teach their subject areas. Threatened with sanctions, or even closing, unless student scores improve in annual standardized tests, the faculty tries to find workable solutions to chronic problems of attendance, lateness and apathy among students, many of whom come from poor backgrounds and broken homes, and lack the most basic reading and math skills.

Due to an achievement gap of four to five years below grade level, ninth grade students present the greatest challenge, requiring intensive intervention by the already overwhelmed teaching staff. By the end of the school year, 50% will drop out. Grant and her staff struggle to raise state assessment scores as a Maryland State monitor continually watches over Douglass with the threat of a state takeover.

At the same time, there are reasons for hope. The high school boasts an award-winning music program, named after Douglass graduate and jazz great Cab Calloway, that includes a choir, a drumline marching band, a jazz combo and an orchestra. The basketball team was Maryland State champion two of the last three years. And the outstanding debate team consistently wins trophies at the Baltimore Urban Debate League. Students Sharnae, Jordan and Matt tell stories of struggling to overcome the enormous challenges of splintered families and peer pressure as they navigate their high school days, offering a reminder that education is inevitably an achievement of people, not policy. With the support of Douglass, these students have demonstrated resilience in the face of formidable odds.

Eventually, Douglass fails to make the adequate yearly progress required by the No Child Left Behind Act and the city and state wrestle for control of the school. This is typical of inner-city schools that cannot meet the demands of the federal law. By 2007 one in four of the nation's public schools failed to show improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act and was threatened with sanctions.

Alan and Susan Raymond's other HBO and CINEMAX credits include "How Do You Spell Murder?," "Children in War" (Emmy® for Non-Fiction Prime-Time Programming), "I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School" (Best Documentary Feature Oscar® as well as Emmy®, DuPont and Peabody Awards), the Oscar®-nominated "Doing Time: Life Inside the Big House," "Into Madness" and "Elvis '56." The Raymonds are also the filmmakers of the 1973 PBS documentary "An American Family" and its follow-ups: 1983's "An American Family Revisited" and 2003's "Lance Loud! A Death in An American Family."

Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card is a Video Vérité production; produced and directed by Alan Raymond and Susan Raymond; written and narrated by Susan Raymond; cinematographer and editor, Alan Raymond. For HBO: senior producer, John Hoffman; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.

Students in hallway

Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card

2008 Documentary Films Series