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HAMPTONS — Setting aside political debates over school funding and philosophy to examine one school’s real-world experience, Jyllian Gunther‘s The New Public goes to Bed-Stuy, New York City to see whether one experimental school can live up to its own ideals. Biting off a realistically small piece of this subject and showing enough of it to create a strong emotional involvement, the doc is a fine addition to the larger conversation and has theatrical appeal.
New York City has seen the launch of 300 small, theme-based schools sine 2003, we’re told. Gunther focuses on the Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School, serving mostly African-American kids in Bed-Stuy. The movie opens with a wave of feel-good optimism: Peppy music accompanies our introduction to faculty from unusual backgrounds — English teacher Kevin Greer, a onetime graffiti-writing drug user, and school founder/principal James O’Brien, who believes his experiences as a DJ and a basketball point guard make him well suited to school leadership.
Their enthusiasm is echoed in the small student body, which initially responds well to non-traditional activities: We see yoga classes, a Friday-afternoon danceoff, and a getting-to-know-you exercise in which kids stand in a circle and assure each other that “I honor and respect you.”
Any cynics in the audience who roll their eyes at this will have their chance to say “I told you so.” By the end of freshman year, informality has led to discipline problems. O’Brien emerges as the idealistic heart of the film, seen working hard to reconcile democratic, inclusive principles and the need for structure. A heart-to-heart conference with student John Dargan, who’s being bullied by kids who suspect he’s gay, will make many viewers wish they’d had such a compassionate principal themselves.
As for students, we see reasons to hope BCAM’s unconventional approach might work. A “Fly Young Women” support group, aimed at girls who’ve been discipline problems at their old schools, brings out the best in kids like Lateefa: The overweight, academically insecure teen gets enough encouragement to show academic promise, and has some success reining in her aggression. Off campus, though, we observe an interaction with three boys that illustrates just how useful a sharp tongue and won’t-back-down attitude can be for a girl like this.
Jumping from freshman to senior year is a reality check, allowing viewers to see which students have flourished in this environment and which policies have had to be abandoned. Results have been mixed, to say the least, but Gunther finds plenty of reasons for optimism.
The New Public never looks to outsiders for context on this project, never discusses how BCAM is funded or where its founders stand on vouchers, teachers’ unions, and other divisive issues. Instead, it shows a small band of people going into a community where school is clearly not working — the Bed-Stuy graduation rate is 40 percent, we’re told — and trying to make things better. In 2012, BCAM’s graduation rate was 74 percent. This film doesn’t directly address the big questions that have sparked such argument among American policymakers, but on-the-ground case studies like this one should be a part of those debates.
Production Company: Wonderful6, Inc.
Director: Jyllian Gunther
Producers: Jyllian Gunther, Essie Chambers, Carla Solomon, Lesley Goldman
Executive producers: Jack Lechner, Andrea Miller, Josh Braun
Directors of photography: Alexis Boling, Jyllian Gunther
Music: Tim Adams
Editor: Penelope Falk
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine
No rating, 87 minutes
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