Film documents a year of inner-city high school reality

 School’s former principal recalls many ‘tough conversations’

A documentary on one year at an American high school will premiere on public television next week. 180 Days: A Year inside an American High School airs Monday-Tuesday, March 25-26, 8-10 pm on TPT Channel 2.

Tanishia Williams Minor
Tanishia Williams Minor

Previously released documentaries such as Waiting for Superman have debated the need for public school reform, especially in urban areas of the U.S., and 180 Days shows television viewers “an intimate portrait of life” in Washington (D.C.) Metropolitan High School, known as “DC Met,” an alternative high school that historically has had low test scores. The film covers day one to day 180 of the entire 2011-12 academic year.

Produced by the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC), PBS is presenting the film in conjunction with Tavis Smiley Reports’ “Education under Arrest,” which is scheduled to air on Channel 2 Tuesday, March 26, at 11 pm.

“We all hear about the national school reform effort,” explains Jacquie Jones, the film’s executive producer, in a press release, “but rarely do we get to see deep inside the schools that are most impacted by policies to improve public education. The challenges that teachers and administrators face are extraordinary.”

DC Met has problems similar to those that ail many of today’s urban high schools — truancy, chronic absenteeism, and students whose home lives are problematic. School Principal Tanishia Williams Minor, when asked in a Monday phone interview with the MSR on the filmmakers’ full access at the school for the entire school year, said, “It wasn’t easy at all.

“When they first approached us with the idea, we had a staff-wide conversation about whether or not we wanted to open our lives up to cameras for a complete year. At the end of the decision, we decided that it did make sense to let folk see what it takes to run a school building with limited resources, so we decided to put personal vanity aside and our egos aside because we were doing it for a bigger and better cause,” Minor pointed out.

Among the students featured in the film are 17-year-old Raven Coston, a single mom; 18-year-old Raven Quattlebaum; 16-year-old Rufus McDowney; 18-year-old Tiara Parker; and 18-year-old Delaunte Bennett.

First-year science teacher Jonathan Smythe and Gary Barnes, the school’s in-school suspension coordinator and basketball coach, also are featured, but the film’s “narrator” is Minor, who was in her second year as principal.

“I don’t think the original thought was to have me serve as the narrator,” continued Minor. “But I think after they looked at all the footage, it kind of lent itself that way because I’m so chatty.”

Minor was a classroom teacher for seven years before being strongly urged by mentors to go into school administration. “As a classroom teacher, you have the control of your classroom, and in my classroom, I knew that the students were first,” she recalled. “I worked under some hard folk, and I worked under some folk who I thought didn’t always make the best decisions for students. I ended up being encouraged to apply for a master’s degree in urban leadership. It took that pep talk and my feeling that all kids should always come first to have me jump out there and see what happens.”

Midway through her first assistant principal appointment, Minor said she was moved up after the principal left in the middle of the school year. “From there I just knew it was the perfect job for me,” she said.

Minor led a staff who also shared her bedrock belief about putting students first, and 180 Days chronicles them as they worked endlessly to educate students in the midst of the ever-present scrutiny from the DC Public Schools administration’s “Central Office,” including possibly losing their jobs if test scores didn’t dramatically improve.

“We had some tough conversations at the start of the year about the work,” said the former principal. “We didn’t cut any corners. As honest as we were with the students, we also were honest with the adults. We had those tough conversations and had folk commit to doing the work.”

Despite such challenges as Jones states that DC Met regularly faced “from student and parent deaths from violent crime and chronic illnesses to homelessness, discipline and safety issues, pregnancies and disengagement,” Minor refuses to point fingers or lay blame on her school’s low test scores and limited resources.

“Money is an issue and will always be an issue,” she stated. “Clearly you can do a lot with technology, but when you don’t have it, you don’t cry over not having it. You figure out how to make what you do have work. Central Office and the folk in those positions have worked hard to reform DCPS.

“I think a lot of the instructional initiatives, and a lot of the accountability initiatives…that’s not the focus. Again, those folk in those seats [Central school administration] have the responsibility to the students to pay better attention, to know that you have a school that is horribly underequipped is not OK.

“I think it is the responsibility of the folk in the seats to make sure that schools are progressing in a way that they want… And when they’re not, it is their responsibility then to have that conversation, and it is not something you put on the back burner until it is convenient to have a conversation.

“If something is not right for kids, then you make the change no matter who it hurts,” Minor insisted.

On the current achievement gap between Black and White students in many U.S. cities, including the Twin Cities and the nation’s capitol, “I would love to say that there is one program or one philosophy that you can follow that would save the day and close the achievement gap, but I really don’t think that’s it,” said Minor.

“I think that step one is making sure that you know what students you serve, you know their strengths and weaknesses and you know the things that would help them get invested in their own education. I think step two is absolutely and unequivocally having honest conversations with the folk that serve the students and conversations with the students.

“And you commit yourself to working for those students. And you teach those students advocacy,” said Minor.

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4 Comments on “Film documents a year of inner-city high school reality”

  1. On Monday, March 25, I was blessed to have viewed Part 1 of 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School. This documentary touched me,…it was riveting!! The featured students had various challenges- some prevailed and some didn’t. It was sad to see Ms. Raven Coston, child and mother leave for Texas. I felt equally sad for the young man who was the father if the child. Did he receive his high school diploma? I pray that he is still involved with Raven and the child. Furthermore, I pray that Raven can attend college. Ms. Raven Quattlebaum faced some challenges. Glad that she let God into her life. He truly blessed her by paving her acceptance into Bennett College. Mr. Rufus McDowney had various challenges. The biggest challenge was the home going of his mother. By him being apart of the basketball team, his teammates weren’t as supportive. Coach Miner did mention that Rufus needed them. I don’t believe that he received enough support from them. In listening to him, I could tell that he was seeking help, indicating that he didn’t want to be in a group home. In my opinion, after his first group home experience, Rufus should have been placed with a legal guardian. He’s an intelligent young man. I would like the opportunity to speak to Rufus. See where he was enrolled in Suitland High School, arrested for theft and placed back into a group home. Was there a mentor and tutoring in place? Mr. Delaunte Bennett, with the home going of his mother, was trying to make a comeback, because, he wanted to play basketball. Where is he now? I must say that Tanishia Williams Minor and the entire staff performed above and beyond their duties to secure an educational investment for each of those children. Despite what teenagers do, we must admonish them yet support them. PEACE!!!

  2. Part 2, Tuesday, March 26, was bitter sweet. Although the staff left, it was tears of joy to see those 30 seniors have a prom and graduate!!

  3. How can we get in touch with Ms Williams-Minor now?! 3.28.’13 What a truly amazing & inspiring school leader. Major beyond Shout Outs to Ms Williams-Minor for her truly astounding leadership & turn around – support for marvelous & tremendous lives for all touched by DC Met under her leadership – and the shared leadership of all the staff in this show & the wonderful students. Go DC Met!!!

  4. Thank you to the producers and the staff for filming “A Year Inside an American High School.” I was moved by the incredible personal challenges faced by many of the students and the commitment, encouragement and resourcefulness of the staff, particularly Principal Minor. I hope that she receives recognition for her level of commitment and determination to always keep the students at the forefront, and not treat them as statistics. Thank you to all the teachers in America who face similar challenges in their classrooms, yet refuse to give up on their students. It was wonderful to see the 30 students graduate from DC Met, and learn that 100% of the graduates were accepted to college!

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