School’s former principal recalls many ‘tough conversations’
By Charles Hallman
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.
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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