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PBS Documentary Spends a Year in a Rural School District

By guest blogger Mark Walsh

Cross-posted from the Education and the Media blog.

In the year-and-a-half since this blog debuted, I have reviewed numerous documentaries that examine urban education and related themes, but only one or two about rural or outlying schools.

A documentary airing Tuesday night on PBS will chalk one up for this under-scrutinized topic. "180 Days: Hartsville" is a two-hour look (8 p.m.; check local listings) at two elementary schools in South Carolina dealing with poverty, race, the Common Core State Standards, testing, and other issues faced in lots of places just like it. 

"We represent America," Eddie Ingram, the insightful superintendent of the 10,000-student Darlington County, S.C., school district, says in the film. "When you add [up] the Hartsvilles of the world, there are more of us than there are of New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, with all due respect to those places."

Co-directors Jacquie Jones and Garland McLaurin made "180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School," which focused on a Washington, D.C., alternative school. That 2013 film won a Peabody Award.

For "Hartsville," the cameras are trained on a community of 7,800 that is some 70 miles northeast of Columbia, S.C. Despite a high proportion of the population at or below the poverty line--more than half of students in the district qualify for free or reduced-price lunches--, the community has a 92 percent graduation rate and strong achievement on standardized tests.

At Thornwell Elementary School, the principal is Julie Mahn, a daughter of sharecroppers who was the first in her family to go to college and is now in her fifth year at the helm. Thornwell's school building was once the all-white high school in the community, but it is now an elementary school that includes an arts magnet and has a high proportion of African-American students.

At West Hartsville Elementary School, meanwhile, the new principal is Tara King, who was once a troubled student. West Hartsville looks a little more spartan than Thornwell. A parent event that seems to have been held around 5:30 in the evening attracts just one parent.

"One out of one hundred fifty-five," King says. At least the school has "baseline data" upon which it can improve, she tells her staff.

Jones, the film's co-director, said in an interview that Mahn and King are both from the community, as are most of the teachers in Hartsville schools. When she did the high school film, most of the teachers at the high school were not from Washington.

"The fact that those teachers grew up in Hartsville and now teach in those schools, that is very different from the urban ed conversation," she said.

The "180 Days," of course, refers to the school year. The film starts on Day 1 and ends on the last day of school, a natural enough conceit for many education documentaries.

It so happens that in 2013-14--the year the documentary crew was in Hartsville--South Carolina debated and eventually withdrew from the common-core standards. The film inventively provides some news clips giving context on the national debate over the educational standards.

The state decision to withdraw from the common core did not appear to affect the two schools' preparation for the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards, or PASS. There is a lot of time at the schools devoted to test preparation, including a fun scene in which King calls Mahn up in front of her students and "talks smack." 

That is light-hearted, but both principals fret over their students' weak spots. 

At other times, school hums along with routines that are largely removed from cutting-edge national debates, including discipline.

The film highlights only one student--Rashon, a 5th grader at West Hartsville who has behaviorial issues, and a significant disciplinary matter that comes up late in the year.

I found it curious that the filmmakers didn't choose at least one more student, from Thornwell, for closer attention in the two-hour film.

Jones told me that the high school film, which was four hours, focused heavily on five students.

"With limited real estate in two hours," it might get confusing to have as many elementary students highlighted, Jones said. "We didn't just want to put a character in so we would have balance."

In my view, Rashon and his mom, Monay, have a lot to carry on their shoulders as the sole student family spotlighted in the film. 

Other segments focus on Pierre Brown, a West Hartsville teacher who is one of the few male role models for the students; and Harris DeLoach, a local corporate chieftain who has put his money where it counts when it comes to the effort to improve the school system.

"180 Days: Hartsville" is part of public television's "American Graduate" initiative, a program that includes not just TV shows but various other community efforts by local stations.

The filmmakers pack a lot into two hours, and even though we don't meet many of the students, viewers will feel like they've gotten to know a couple of small-town elementary schools that "represent America."

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