We first meet Jennifer Coffield as a student at Black Rock High, a continuation high school in the remote Mojave Desert. Deserted by her mom, and with a destructive father who rejected her, she lives with her grandmother. She talks openly about being molested by her grandmother’s husband when she was in grade school. Working hard to graduate, she tearfully confides in a teacher that her father is very upset with her because he doesn’t want her to graduate early.
She is one of three teens featured in the superb documentary film The Bad Kids. The other teens are Lee Bridges – a father who struggles to balance schoolwork, dealing with his drug-addicted mother, parenting, and supporting his girlfriend – and Joey McGee, who is failing academically. But the center of the film and the school is the outstanding principal Vonda Viland.
Continuation schools are alternative high school programs for students sixteen years of age or older, who haven’t graduated from high school, are still required to attend school, and who are at risk of not graduating. Black Rock is one of the best, and this film captures the school, the dedicated educators who work there, and the daily struggles of kids who are often dealing with parental problems, poverty, drugs, or problems with the law.
The teachers are wonderful in their dedication, psychological savvy and emotional support. Their love and empathy dominate the film as does their ability to challenge kids and help give them the life skills they’ll need once they graduate.
Vonda, the principal, is exceptional. Up before dawn every morning, she gets on the phone before the start of school and calls students who need a nudge to just get out of bed and get to school. We watch one meeting after another that she has with the three students, that display her care, counseling skills, and her ability to create an intimacy that helps restore their spirit and drive. All of this set against a backdrop of frequently unstable or destructive home lives.
In one scene in which she is trying to help Jennifer get through her father’s unfathomable opposition to her educational success, Vonda shares her own story and what it felt like to discover a letter after her dad’s death in which he said that there was “no way in hell” that he would take her. Vonda’s goal is to help Jennifer realize that she needs to be her own person and not need her dad’s approval. This personal sharing helps create a bond that makes Vonda’s message even more effective.
Jennifer does what she needs to do to graduate. The safe and supportive environment makes it easy for many of these kids to openly share their problems with teachers, peers, and the filmmakers. The peer support shown in a number of scenes is also fostered in this environment and is distinctive. Not all three kids make it. The film makes it very clear that even the greatest educators can’t always be an antidote to external problems.
Black Rock, like many of our best continuation schools, also provides lessons for all educators. We have many invisible at-risk kids with dysfunctional families in schools in which few teachers can also act as counselors. We have few principals who would spend as much time with kids helping them individually. But it is important to note that despite the usual variations in quality.
Continuation school faculty are also given more freedom to experiment than teachers in regular programs. There is often an attitude of “anything you can do to reach these kids would be great.” So it is very much worth looking to some of these schools for ideas that can and should be mainstreamed.
Perhaps the most important lessons we can learn is, as one of the filmmakers put it, educators can begin to make changes without more resources. “It doesn’t cost anything to listen to a student and see them and acknowledge them.” For many adolescents, that can make all the difference.
The winner of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Award for Vérité Filmmaking, the film, directed by Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe, premieres on Independent Lens Monday, March 20, 2017, 10:00-11:30 PM ET (check local listings) on PBS. The film will also stream on PBS.org/independentlens starting the day after broadcast.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.