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'Teach Us All' Documentary Looks at Racial Inequities in Schools

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A documentary made available on Netflix beginning this week examines racial inequality in schools 60 years after nine black students integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

"Teach Us All" has some poignant observations about the state of our schools, focusing on Little Rock in 1957 and today, as well as equity issues in New York City and Los Angeles public schools.

"Most kids are not going to be killed by police," says a woman who, unfortunately, the filmmakers forgot to identify. "Most kids will not be beaten by police. Most kids will not go to jail. Millions and millions of black and Latino kids will go through a public education system that does not educate them."

The film was written and directed by Sonia Lowman, and was produced by the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, a Fort Scott, Kan.-based nonprofit run by Milken, who with his brother, Michael Milken, has been closely involved in education philanthropy for years.

Lowell Milken appears in the film several times stressing the importance of strong teachers in all classrooms. He is one of many talking heads in the 75-minute film, which comes across as a lengthy newsmagazine segment rather than an immersive documentary.

That's not meant as sharp criticism, and the film does present scenes of the many schools it visits. But we don't ever get to linger and hear the teachers or students in action. The scenes are usually just backdrops for more talking heads.

The film opens with a concise but informative history lesson on the Little Rock Nine, which is timely since Monday was the 60th Anniversary of the day they finally attended Central High accompanied by U.S. paratroopers ordered into the city by President Dwight W. Eisenhower to counter the mobs and local officials who blocked integration.

The filmmakers interviewed two members of the Nine: Elizabeth Eckford and Terrance Roberts.

"I would not describe it as integration," says Eckford about that challenging school year at Central High. She famously bore the wrath of the Little Rock mob on an earlier day when the nine African-American students were to seek to enter the high school and all but Eckford had gotten the word that the attempt was called off.  

The film transitions to Little Rock of today, where the state of Arkansas in 2015 took control of the state's largest district. We meet a Little Rock student and a principal who took over a reconstituted elementary school. 

Soon, we hear from Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a prominent researcher on desegregation, who provides his national perspective on the backsliding in integration. 

"For black students, we're back to where we were a year or so before Martin Luther King [Jr.] was assassinated," he says. "It's not a story of progress. It's a story of total inequality of schooling."

The narrator intones early on that the film "is not a Little Rock story. Or even a Southern one. This is our American story."

We visit New York City to examine a public school system where even in one old school building, John Jay High School in Brooklyn, four high school programs operate with different curricular approaches and levels of support. One educator complains that one school got a lot more startup money than the others, and she refers to the overall building as "Apartheid High."

An educator at Park Slope Collegiate School, also at the John Jay campus, explains that the school has attracted more white students, to the point where they make up 50 percent of enrollment, and thus the school is approaching a "tipping point where it would no longer be an integrated school."

The next stop is Los Angeles, where there is another nice history lesson about the Mendez v. Westminster School District, a landmark 1947 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that struck down the segregration of students of Mexican heritage into inferior schools in Orange County.

There is a discussion of the Vergara v. California case of recent years challenging teacher tenure and layoff procedures that plaintiffs charged harmed minority students. The plaintiffs won a much-discussed victory in a trial court that was ultimately overturned on appeal.

There are other strands of ideas: about the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, about school choice, and more from Lowell Milken about teachers.

In that sense the film is slightly disjointed. But its message that much more work needs to be done to foster racial equity in the nation's schools would be hard to disagree with.

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