George Lucas Educational Foundation
School Leadership

The New Public: A Film You Have to See

Photo credit: Jyllian Gunther

    I love movies, especially good movies about kids and about education. I'm also often disappointed in these films. I've become tired of documentaries extoling or attacking charter schools. I've also seen too many films focusing on at-risk kids in struggling schools that somehow manage to be clichéd, repetitive and boring.

    So when I discover films like the two that I want to share with you, films that are truly great in both their substance and the quality of the filmmaking, I feel uplifted and hopeful. They renew my faith in both public education and great documentary filmmaking. The two films are The New Public and The Graduates. I plan to review the latter film just before its wide release in late October. But The New Public airs nationally on PBS on October 1, so let's start with that one.

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    Remarkable But Not Romanticized

    The fact that this terrific film will be available for free is a gift to all of us. This is not just a good film about a school. It's filled with very special human drama that transcends the education film genre and is better than any fictional film that I've ever seen about schools. That may seem like hyperbole, but it's true!

    In fall 2006, James O'Brien, a former teacher and first-time principal, started the Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School, a small public high school in Brooklyn, New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where one third of the residents live below the poverty line. The normative graduation rate had been 40 percent.

    O'Brien and his small cadre of teachers created a school with an arts-oriented curriculum that also emphasizes self-development, community collaboration and social change. Their journey has hardly been a smooth fairytale ride to success and glory. It's been a tough one. Nothing is romanticized in this film.

    It follows the students, parents and educators across four years of hard work, a roller coaster ride of successes and failures, capturing it all with intimacy and deep emotional resonance.

    Power and Intimacy

    Ultimately, what makes this film so powerful are the people and the intimacy between the parents, kids, teachers and film director Jyllian Gunther. The scenes shot in student homes are remarkably intimate and real. The kids and parents are far more engaging than the stars in any fictional film about kids and schools.

    A few scenes stand out for me.

    • A kid walking down the hall with his arm around the principal who has just told him that he'll take him to get sneakers that weekend.
    • The mother of a struggling student breaking down and sobbing as she tries to deal with helping her son make it.
    • "A Night to Shine," filled with great fun and great talent. It felt to me like Youth Speaks meets Glee.
    • A teacher who doesn't fit in. He's used to high achieving kids, and his methods are boring. He's clearly a mismatch for this school -- except that he adapts and learns and becomes effective and connects with the kids. And we get to witness this change.

    "You're Allowed to be Who You Are"

    But perhaps the story that will linger most deeply in my memory is that of John Dargan, a kid who is bullied for being different, struggles with his sexuality, and finally comes out. That could be clichéd, but in this film it isn't. We sit in on his conversation with the principal who says, "Do you think showing emotion means weakness?" The kid says yes. The principal tells him, "Well, I bawled my eyes out last night writing thank you cards related to my dad’s death." Crying is OK, he tells him. This doesn't make you weak. You're strong. "You still come every day" and deal with this. "You're allowed to be who you are." And we watch the kid’s face light up.

    Who is this kid? Even if you did a casting call for someone to play the role, you couldn't possibly match this transparent, struggling and lovable kid.

    We also see his mother's halting, tearful description of her struggle to accept the reality of his coming out.

    Later we watch him deal with one college rejection letter after another. In each case we're there with him, and his face tells the story, as it does when he ultimately (spoiler alert!) gets accepted to Connecticut College with a scholarship to major in film studies. (We have earlier seen him making a wonderful little film.)

    All of this is a testament not only to the realness and openness of the teachers, students and parents, but also to the director's ability to develop relationships that help create this intimacy.

    More Than Just a Film About Education

    So the film is about the struggles of educators to create a successful inner city school that changes lives, but it's also about the people in the community and about the human condition.

    The only film that I remember capturing kids and educators in the inner city as effectively was season four of the great TV series The Wire, which focused on a middle school. That's a high compliment.

    This would be a great film to share with kids, parents and educators. Although it's not focused on instruction, there are instructional moments that would be good discussion items for teachers. Even more importantly, it is continually instructional in how it captures the value of teacher-student connections and how teachers can effectively deal with the emotional lives of learners. It's also instructional in what it demonstrates about the challenges to teachers posed by struggling kids, and how teachers can get through their own frustrations and moments of failure to successfully reach and teach these kids.

    Do not miss The New Public. This is as good as it gets in educational filmmaking and a small classic of documentary filmmaking.