In Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the high school graduation rate is 40 percent. The New Public, a documentary by Jyllian Gunther, tells the story of a small group of high school teachers and administrators who tackle that problem by opening a small arts school in the middle of a troubled neighborhood.
Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School (BCAM) starts out with about a hundred students and idealistic optimism on the part of the school’s teachers. The documentary follows a handful of teachers, administrators and students during the school’s first year, then revisits them as the students complete their senior year in high school.
A host of instantly likable characters populate the documentary. The film tracks one student, John, as he struggles with his sexuality in the face of an aloof, unaccepting mother. He sees college as the only way out of a suffocating home life.
Inner-city education is a touchy subject, but The New Public manages to present a non-judgmental examination of the growing pains at a new, alternative high school. There’s plenty to scoff at, if you’re the type that thinks the idea of kids getting grades for yoga and hip-hop is unproductive. But the documentary doesn’t pass judgment on this and a variety of other potentially political issues, opting instead for a hands-off approach on potentially controversial subjects.
What we get instead is a personal look into the lives of a handful of people involved in the school. We see a meeting with parents after a student gets shot after school. We see John’s desperation grow as the pile of college rejection letters gets larger. We see parents frustrated their child isn’t meeting his potential. We see the effect that four years of inner-city teaching has on a teacher unprepared for the enormity of the task.
You leave the film with an appreciation of the immense challenges faced by inner-city educators. How do you teach against a backdrop of poverty, violence, apathy and low expectations? The New Public doesn’t provide an answer, but it looks at how one imperfect solution has succeeded and failed in the face of impossible odds.
The New Public will play at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 16 at Boulder High School. See www.biff1.com for more information.
This story is part of our complete coverage of BIFF 2013.