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'America to Me' Offers a 10-Hour Look at Racial Equity in a Large High School

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If you are a teacher, administrator, student, parent, or anyone else interested in education in the United States, you will want to check whether you subscribe to and can find the Starz channel on your cable system, or get the app, by this Sunday. 

That's when "America to Me," a compelling 10-hour documentary series about about one year at a racially diverse suburban high school, premieres on the premium channel.

I wrote here in June about the series created by Steve James, the co-director of the brilliant 1994 documentary "Hoop Dreams," after seeing the first hour at the AFI DOCS film festival in Washington. That first episode about a year at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Ill., was "beautifully shot and full of promise," I wrote.

In advance of the Aug. 26 premiere on Starz (10 p.m. Eastern time), the channel made available to critics the first five episodes, which give a much fuller sense of the series than just the initial episode. (Those same first five episodes premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier year, creating a buzz that led to Starz picking up the series.)

James lives in Oak Park, a mostly progressive enclave adjacent to the west side of Chicago. He was interested in examining racial equity at the high school, which is 54 percent white, 21 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic, 9.5 percent multi-ethnic, and about 3 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, according to the schools 2017-18 enrollment figures. 

Over the objections of school administrators, the board of Oak Park-River Forest School District 200 voted to allow the documentary to be filmed during the 2015-16 academic year. The school has grappled with racial disparities in achievement, and the board apparently believed the documentary could shine a spotlight on racial equity issues. 

(The superintendent and principal declined to participate in the film, and the Chicago Tribune this week described some of the hurdles and challenges the filmmakers faced in dealing with the district and its lone high school.)

In the first four episodes, the documentary focuses on several African-American and biracial students, including Terrence, a junior in special education who is extremely soft-spoken and at risk of getting lost in the shuffle; Chanti, the daughter of an African-American father and Asian-American mother who is a strong academic performer but is sometimes treated unfairly; and Grant, a freshman with a black father and white mother who is finding his place in the 3,000-student high school.

Just as I worried about whether the documentary would feature any white students as central characters, Episode 5 opens with James explaining in a voiceover that the film crew spent most of their first semester at the school trying to recruit some white subjects. A couple of potential white subjects, during pre-interviews, rack their brains wondering whether they have any close black friends at the school. The series finally does add a couple of white students to the group of featured subjects. 

While the series features some quick-cutting scenes of typical high school life, the heart of each episode is a serious look at a range of racially-tinged issues. These include remedial reading and blended learning classes, the Spoken Word Team (which performs slam poetry), and racial epithets directed at the school's athletic teams by some opponents. (A warning: There is some strong language in the series, which Starz apparently intends to air.)

The documentary also focuses on a number of teachers, including the inspiring Jessica Stovall, a biracial English teacher who is committed to serving those students at the fringes. 

There is also a well-meaning white physics teacher who feels his years of experience teaching black students gives him special insight, and he shares his "racial memoir" with two African-American students in his class.

But he also seems to feel that his consciousness entitles him to make some cringe-inducing remarks to black students, commenting on their hair or trying to connect over hip-hop culture. One of his black students explains that she and other African-Americans would rather just be treated like other students.

That moment captures the series in many ways. If the school doesn't pay extra attention to the barriers faced by minority students, the racial gaps will persist. But race-minded efforts can be awkward and miss the mark. And even a progressive community with professed good intentions on race is not immune from insensitivity, micro-aggressions, and overt racism.

"America to Me," whose title comes from the Langston Hughes poem "Let America Be America Again," does a good job of spotlighting the nuances of the racial-equity effort, while letting the students, teachers, and parents offer the observations, many of which are downright poetic.

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