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'Don't Fail Me': CNN Tells Story of Three High-Achieving Students

Three top-tier students, at three different high schools, from three different parts of the country—with three very different experiences as they fight to pursue their academic dreams.

This Sunday at 8 p.m. eastern time, CNN will broadcast the documentary, "Don't Fail Me: Education in America." Reported and narrated by Soledad O'Brien, it follows three high schoolers—in Arizona, Tennessee, and New Jersey—as they take part in preparations for for the FIRST Robotics Competition, a nationwide student contest of applied math and science skill.

The students' experiences in the competition, which draws teams from all over the country, is only one part of the CNN's overall story, which delves into their lives at school, and at home.

All three students are among the elite in their schools, but that's where their similarities end.

One of the students, who attends a top-tier school in an affluent community, gets all of the advanced high school coursework he can handle (and he can handle a lot). The academic standards in his school are high, and he aims to meet them, most likely on his way to gettting admitted to one of the nation's best colleges.

Another of the high schoolers excels in his classes, and he aced his ACT test, earning him recruiting letters from colleges he hadn't even thought about. But it's a struggle for him to find courses that challenge him, and parents in his sports-crazed Tennessee community don't seem to be demanding that those kinds of demanding classes get added to the school's curriculum.

The third student, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, attends an inner-city school in Phoenix, Ariz., and she faces the toughest challenges of them all. She dreams of attending Stanford University, but she isn't sure that she will be able to take the high school classes necessary to get in. Her family has worked hard to provide for her, though they aren't always certain how to encourage her to reach new academic heights.

It's compelling stuff.

Elected officials and educators talk constantly about closing the woeful "achievement gap" in this country. Most of the time they're talking about the vast disparities in academic performance between whites and minorites, rich and poor. The need to close the gap seems more urgent than ever, given the competition the United States faces from foreign nations, which have cheap labor and an increasingsly skilled workforce.

"Don't Fail Me" comes at the issue from a distinct angle, by focusing on how students who could very well be our future innovators and leaders aren't being given the same opportunities to nurture their talents—with potentially grave implications for our country.

[UPDATE: (May 13): I took part in a panel discussion for an early screening of the show, led by O'Brien, which brought together diverse set of contributors with expertise in math, science, and engaging students. If you're a teacher, student, or policymaker, maybe you'll arrange your own discussion after watching the film.]

So tune in this weekend. Here's a preview from "Don't Fail Me":


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