Welcome to Frederick Douglass High School, the second oldest black school of its kind in the United States. Born out of the separate but equal educational system in the early part of the 20th Century, its most famous alumni include former United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and jazz great Cab Calloway. Frederick Douglass High School also boasts a 66% uncertified teacher ratio, a less than 25% graduation rate, fewer than 10% reading at appropriate grade level, and only one student out of the entire school who passed the State of Maryland algebra exam. The perfect companion piece to Season 4 of The Wire, this new HBO documentary shows the viewer a year in the life of an inner city high school, and while the setting is Baltimore, Maryland, the same school, faculty, students, parents, and administrators exist in places like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Newark, and most likely within your zip code if you live within the continental United States.
“BELIEVE” reads a painted banner hanging over the doorway to Frederick Douglass, but “Abandon all hope ye who enter” would not be out of place. The clean, modern, and surprisingly graffiti free hallways betray the sheer hellish nature of this institution and those who wander its halls. Attending class is the exception; achievement outside of the music program and a few individual students is non-existent; and morale, like whites and middle class blacks, has long since fled the area. Apathy and frustration reign supreme here, signified by the stark emptiness of the auditorium on Parents Night and the sight of teachers sitting alone in their classrooms waiting for that face-to-face meeting that will never happen. “Three parents showed up, so that’s a good night,” says 9th Grade English teacher, Mr. McDermott. Another, older teacher reminisces about the days when parents and their kids would have been lined up down the hall waiting to speak with their child’s teacher. Now, one to three parents is the new standard, measured against the high water mark that was five parents in a single night two years ago.
And why should anyone expect the kids to act any differently when their parents refuse to be engaged in their child’s education? At one point in the documentary, the principal and the school’s resource officer go to the home of one student who is habitually absent to speak with her mother. Now, keep in mind that this happens during a weekday. The principal and resource officer get to the home and, of course, the girl and the mother are both there. They proceed to ask the mother if she knows that her daughter has been missing so much school and why. Well, the girl is sitting right there…at home…on a school day…at the table with her mother. It’s fucking obvious that she knows and just doesn’t care anymore. It’s also obvious that the mother is either a recovering addict or jonesing for another shot. Another example is one 17 year old 9th grade multiple repeater who has been placed in remedial classes, but doesn’t want to go. They state that his mother doesn’t think he belongs in remedial classes either even though he’s a 17 YEAR OLD 9th GRADER! Just like the teachers and administrators, the parents have lost complete control over these kids. Worse yet, they’re just as apathetic about it as the kids. Not to mention the fact that when I say, “parents,” I mean mothers, because the fathers have long since vanished from the scene. That is, when it’s not a grandmother or aunt that’s the official guardian, a point that’s rather sadly hammered home during the principal’s graduation introduction when she welcomes the, “parents, grandparents, and legal guardians,” to the ceremony. “You made it!” she says, and yes these kids are survivors, but only temporarily.
While the subtitle reads, “A No Child Left Behind Report Card,” very little time is spent either supporting or condemning this policy. Instead, NCLB as a public policy is relegated to almost footnote status. Just like the Court’s mandate of “all deliberate speed” in Brown v. Board of Education, NCLB is just another in a long line of mixed bad educational reforms – full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing in the face of urban demographics and poverty. One could legitimately argue that NCLB’s lofty standards of proficiency are a good thing for schools. After all, why shouldn’t schools ensure that the maximum number of students in its care actually demonstrates learning and that the teachers they employ are qualified to teach? Surely, having some goals is better than just continuing to hand out assembly line diplomas to functional illiterates by unqualified people off of the streets. Then again, when the dual specters of funding reduction and the loss of local control are attached to meeting those standards, the Devil is not only in the details, he’s in the state legislature advocating for these standards to be repealed. The counter, and equally legitimate argument, is that NCLB is too stringent and doesn’t provide the necessary financial incentives to implement the policy. At the end of the day, the problem with meeting or failing the NCLB standards is that no one is to blame and everyone is to blame. Everyone is a victim – the students, the teachers, the administration,
the state legislature, the business community, colleges and universities, parents, society, the country, and future generations. Excuses for failure take precedence over solutions for success, but in the end, it all seems so irrelevant and hopeless, as no well-meaning policy could ever hope to address the issues facing Frederick Douglass. The system is too far gone and the culture is irreparably toxic. The mythology of and ethos of victimhood is so ingrained that when the black referee and the black scorekeeper of a basketball game make a dubious call that results in the star player fouling out of the semi-final against another all-black high school, one player unleashes a rambling screed in the post-game locker room about how this was just another example of the city trying to keep the black man down, force him to sell drugs, profit from his labor, and put him in jail. The coach, a police officer at the school, attempts to regain control by pleading with his players to not let this be about more than basketball and to use this as an opportunity to grow, but even he knows the score. The mythology and ethos runs too deep. Later, when some players meet with an Upward Bound college coordinator to discuss how to package themselves to recruiters despite their abysmal top SAT score of 480, they’re told to focus on the essay and explain the hardships and trials they’ve experienced. Never mind the fact that 99% of them are reading and writing at a 3rd or 4th grade level, and don’t bother with SAT assistance. The solution is found, and reinforced, once again in being the most attractive victim.
Any and all rays of hope are depressingly fleeting. Sure there are one or two success stories, like the two senior boys – one who excels in debate, the other in music, and the one girl who appears to be excelling in the school’s music production program despite looking and sounding exactly like Snoop from The Wire. But for the most part, nobody gets out alive. Mr. McDermott, the 9th Grade English teacher at first appears to be an energetic, vibrant, and creative force in the classroom. He has a tenuous amount of control on his class and appears to be well-liked, which is all the more surprising due to the fact that he is young, white, and in his 3rd year at the school. However, at the end of the first semester, he resigns from his position. It had been “the year that I stopped seeing progress in kids,” he says as he’s packing up, “the year I stopped finding the little joys.” The 9th Grade Spanish teacher, a young white girl on a two-year assignment through Teach America, which places recent college graduates in inner city schools, is in her first year at Frederick Douglass, and based on the lack of enthusiasm displayed by her students and the already visible frustration on her face, will probably not let the door hit her in the ass once her contract is up.
Which brings up another interesting point about the documentary that makes it essential viewing – the obvious disconnect between the teachers in the classroom and the administrators in the front office. In a very telling piece of editing, the despair felt by the teachers at having only met one or two parents on Parents Night is contrasted with the enthusiasm of the principal, Mrs. Grant, who upon hearing that 105 parents signed up for the PTA exclaims, “that’s wonderful – what a success this night has been!” Mrs. Grant, ever the eternal optimist, marvels endlessly at the small victories (and who can blame her when these victories are few and far between), while appearing completely oblivious to the hardships and struggles facing the teachers under her direction. Nowhere is this more apparent than during a meeting with the faculty about their mid-year evaluations, where her admonition that this meeting is not, “about complaining,” is quickly trumped by one senior faculty member who forcefully reminds her that he only has 16 textbooks available for a class of 24 and that no one can take the book home. How, then, is it fair to evaluate him based on how well his students learn when they lack even the basic capability for doing homework assignments? Over and again, the teachers talk about scrounging supplies and textbooks from friends and sources inside the school system – meeting people at unlocked back doors in the night to score the most recent edition books and supplies like junkies. But would new books and supplies really matter? The sad truth is these kids are fucked because education just isn’t valued by anyone in their peer group or their family. Everyone’s self-esteem is so fragile that even a peer’s minor achievement of learning to read or do math is seen as a personal threat or attack. Sure, there are some authority figures who attempt to serve as a positive example, but they don’t live in the same daily environment as the kids do; they can’t really relate; and they can’t honestly compete with the prevailing culture.
Not only do the teachers lack the training and supplies necessary to teach, they are also stymied on their judgment and grading come graduation time by a system that is far more interested in statistics than in whether or not the child is prepared. Mrs. Grant, the principal, states that the teachers are encouraged to provide make-up exams and additional assignments to help students graduate on time. The teachers tell a different story, claiming, to a one, that this “encouragement” is actually an unofficial requirement. If a student asks, the teacher must allow them. Hell, even if they don’t ask, the teacher must come up with a list of options for the student to select from. However, whatever anger or resentment the teachers may have had regarding this policy has been replaced with resignation. As one teacher says, “What are they learning if they stay here another year? It’s all in the way your morals handle it, I guess.” One statistic mentioned in the beginning states, less than 10% of the students come to Frederick Douglass High School writing, reading, or performing at the appropriate grade level. Which begs the question, what are they learning before they get to high school? How did they get this far and, exactly, where will they go from here? The answers to these questions are all, I imagine, as equally disturbing and depressing as this film.