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New PBS School Documentary '180 Days': A Grueling, Hopeful Journey

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At Washington Metropolitan High School, in the District of Columbia, many students struggle to keep going. The alternative school for at-risk youth features a litany of the toughest problems schools have to cope with: Chronic absenteeism, dropouts, violence, teenage pregnancy, suspension, tight budgets, and an ongoing challenge to meet adequate yearly progress.

In an ambitious project, a film crew went into D.C. Met for the entirety of the 2011-12 school year to give a broad picture of what a school in dire straits faces. The result, "180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School," debuts tonight at 9 p.m. ET on PBS, with the other half showing tomorrow night.

"180 Days" gives a sweeping view of the climate inside alternative urban schools, starting with the school's principal, Tanishia Minor, and moving out from there. The crew went into the high school every single day, and if the four-hour finished product seems expansive, it ultimately focuses on the difficulty of keeping a school together, let alone making it academically proficient.

"In these parts, we know these kids are walking in with these deficits, and every second counts," Minor says.

The climate almost demands failure. When a student gets a great scholarship to college, they put the good news on the sign in front of the school.

The National Black Programming Consortium produced the film with funding from the Ford Foundation and American Graduate, a project of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting created to bring attention to the U.S. education system.

D.C. Met did not reach AYP in 2011, and the specter of accountability testing hangs over the school. The school's cheerleaders even create songs promoting best efforts on the Comprehensive Assessment System tests, or CAS.

But other obstacles await, too, and Minor doesn't sugarcoat it for her students. "The choices that you make in 9th grade will either afford you a world of opportunity or they will box you into something that you may not necessarily want, and all of us are here to help you," Minor tells her freshmen on day one. That same day, she has to make an announcement over the PA system that counseling is available for any student who needs to talk about the death of a fellow classmate two weeks prior.

Only 179 days left.

An undercurrent seeps through the film, a sense that's just shy of disdain toward whoever thinks they have the next big solution for D.C. Met. Whether overtly or not, the school adopts an attitude of "Thanks, but no thanks" toward outside intervention, even as Minor and her staff strive to meet all expectations.

Indeed, D.C. Public Schools are in many ways at the epicenter of education politics. It starts with former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee's IMPACT program, which restructured teacher evaluation, along with Rhee's other reform initiatives. Then the 72,000-plus-student district applied to and won Race to the Top grant money from the Obama administration, on the basis of making major changes to district policy. And in 2011 federal budget negotiations, Republicans won a concession from President Obama to keep a district voucher program that Democrats wanted to see go.

"We keep getting bombarded with slogans and ways from outside on how we should improve the inside," says Gary Barnes, the D.C. Met in-school suspension coordinator. "Come live here for a while, then tell us how to change it."

For all the problems, director Jacquie Jones maintained at a pre-screening in Washington last week that "180 Days" is, overall, an optimistic film. That shows, too, not just in the persistence of the teachers, but in the mentality of the students who come to class.

"It was completely transformative. I think it changed all of our views on education," said coordinating producer Alexis Aggrey, after the screening. "I think it made us feel, after we shot it and going through all the footage, we just feel like this piece was going to be bigger than what we expected it to be, and I think it lends a voice to this conversation that wouldn't have normally been captured."

Watch Preview on PBS. See more from 180 Days.

"180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School" runs in two two-hour segments, tonight and tomorrow, on most PBS stations nationwide. It's scheduled for 9 p.m. in many markets, but check your local listings for the exact time.

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