The New Public is another of the new, fantastic documentaries that screened at the 2013 deadCENTER Film Festival, a very strong year for the category in general. The movie followed a new high school opening in Bed-Stuy that had dreams of changing the way kids learn to hopefully increase the graduation rate and success level of these children. What makes this documentary so interesting is that this school begins to fail, but finally succeeds in the goals at the end.
What looked like a documentary about some educators changing the world turned into a struggle to adapt and change, while keeping their kid’s futures at the forefront. What makes the documentary succeed is that it shows the failures, so that the success stories can hold more power.
The school opened in 2006, and the educators came in with high ideas. James O’Brien, a former D.J., came in as the school’s principal, and hired a faculty of eight individuals who shared the dreams of changing how kids are taught. At first, it seemed like they were trying to teach the kids at a basic level, using art, music, and pop culture ideals to help them understand what they failed to learn in regular public schools.
That was a wonderful thought in my mind as well, since I am 100-percent behind using the arts in schools to help teach kids. However, when they started to lose kids who were trained through their years to believe that you couldn’t have fun while learning, and that things needed to be strict to achieve your goals, they saw that change was needed. It was really touched on by one mother who chastised the school and her son when his grades dropped from an A to a B, claiming that he was there to learn and not to dance or rap.
Failures are a large part of this documentary, as you have to fall to get back up stronger than before. Lateefah was a strong willed young woman who came from a rough past. She excelled at one point, making the honor role, but she was also one of the people who couldn’t escape from the past. Even one of the teachers, Kevin Greer, found it hard to teach students – many of whom seemed unable to understand his teaching and he begins to question his place there.
However, when the documentary jumps forward four years to senior year, you see the changes that were made. You see what these people had to do in order to achieve their goals of helping the kids reach the next stage of their life prepared for what the world had to throw at them. The best story was John, a student who had been bullied his entire life. Not only does he learn what his place in the world is, but he achieves his goal of getting into college.
What makes this entire documentary so intriguing is that it is not a documentary about a group of educators changing the world. These people learned that they could not change the world by making drastic changes. They had to scale back the arts classes (disappointing to me) and increase their discipline. Honestly, it felt to me like they were becoming more like a regular school, and were not that different at all.
However, what makes this work is that the school still works hard to mold the kids who come in to their halls into a cohesive unit, a group of kids who work together and build together and learn together. Instead of just teaching the kids and then throwing them back out onto the streets, like many public schools, this school still takes a strong interest in the kids who want to learn.
The results are now around 73-percent. 45 of the 60 kids we started out with graduated after their four years. This movie is a story about a school that invests itself in helping kids learn. The hard lesson to learn, and what makes this documentary so compelling, is that this school still has to face the reality that there are kids and parents who will always make that job hard. The New Public is a documentary about people who face that battle head on, and look to be succeeding in the end.