American Promise: Save Our Black Boys from Education Failure
Two parents take matters into their own hands to document how black boys fare in school
The right to a good education has fueled some parents to take drastic measures.
Tanya McDowell is facing 12 years for lying about her residence in order to send her six-year-old son to a better school. Some parents opt to homeschool. Others go into Ivy League college debt in order to send their child to a top elementary school.
For parents and filmmakers Michele Stephenson and Joe Brewster, they decided to pick up a camera and document their son's entire educational career. From kindergarten to 12th grade, their son Idris and his friend Seun Summers have been the stars of a documentary that looks at a growing achievement gap in the American school system and how black boys fare in the classroom. Especially when they attend The Dalton School, listed by Forbes as one of the "top 20 best prep schools in the country."
Now, as Idris and Seun prepare to graduate from high school in the coming months and filming draws to an end, the real work begins. Stephenson and Brewster have launched a kickstarter campaign to help raise funds for their film "American Promise." With over 1,000 hours of footage they have an enormous amount of editing before them, but assure that the bigger lift is make this independent documentary a catalyst for a national discourse on how to improve our educational system as it relates to students of color.
Their concerns over the achievement gap were further validated Tuesday when the Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Education released startling data about the differences between the way black students and white students are taught and disciplined in schools. In a survey of 72,000 schools, it was found that while black students made up only 18% of those enrolled in the schools sampled, they accounted for 35% of those suspended once, 46% of those suspended more than once and 39% of all expulsions.
Loop 21 talked to the filmmakers about their personal experience and their hopes for the film.
Loop 21: Twelve years ago you decided to pick up a camera and film your son and his friend's experience at a private, predominately white school and explore how they were taught and treated. Would you have done the same if they went to a black school?
Joe Brewster: I’m not sure but I know more now than I did then. We didn’t understand the African-America achievement gap in 1998. We went in as filmmakers. The filmmaker's hate says "We are in an environment we do not know and we are moving in uncharted territory. Let's turn the camera on."
Michele Stephenson: We didn't go into the school wanting from the start to document. We're filmmakers. We saw that the academic possibilities were limitless really, for our son. We started the project exploring diversity with four characters – the two boys Idris and Seun and two girls. However the girls left the project [and we] were left with a focused situation where we were tracking the coming of age of two black boys against the statistics we saw.
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Loop 21: Dalton is prestigious and known to be a very guarded, as far as dealing with media, their public image, etc. What is their take on this documentary?
Brewster: Dalton is fully onboard. We can say that now but that took us 12 years. Yes, they are guarded. Yes, they have policies on dealing with the media. I don’t think initially they saw this as a real project or one with the potential it has now. Over the years many parents have gotten to know us. This isn’t really a film about Dalton but about parents and how we negotiate the educational landscape. We have 1,000 hours of film. Very little takes place in Dalton. The boys began to struggle and as parents we attempted to do help our son. The camera was already on.
Loop 21: When did you notice that race would be a factor in your child's education? Was it an interaction with a teacher, dean, etc where you realized "They don't get it"?
Brewster: The numbers we are looking at with black boys boggle the mind. What we’ve done as far as addressing our sons needs ... we had to act like a team player. No one gets this. The negative images that portray black people as incompetent are so overwhelming that even we are impacted by it. That’s the tragedy. Our film tried very hard to not focus on what they don’t get. Once we got it our son began to thrive.
Stephenson: I think it’s a given that teachers, in some cases it might even matter their background, at one point will not get a black male student because of the stereotypes and the extreme imagery out there we are all subjected too. We want to acknowledge that. We all -- parents, teachers, anyone our children interact with -- have a role to play in the challenges these boys face in creating their sense of identities. Opening up that conversation, everyone being able to own a part of that, the next level of engaging interaction.
Loop 21: In the trailer, there is a moment when your son talked about being made fun of for "talking white." You refer to that as "racial code switching." Can you explain that terminology?
Brewster: My son moves and speak in a way that is more in line with the people he is around. It’s like learning another language. Many others do it. It’s important to learn that task. My son had great difficulty with that. I can remember a Dalton administrator say that when you learn multiple languages it’s a little slower at first. You’re a little slow to speak any language well but when you get it down you are bilingual or trilingual. It was very important for our son to have cultural competency among a variety of people – upper-middle class, working class, African-America, Caribbean. It was rough, but if you look at Idris versus many of these other kids he is comfortable in a number of populations.
Stephenson: This is a skill set that we consciously worked on with our son. He was successful to a certain degree as far as navigating the two worlds. We definitely wanted him to have that exposure so the "code switching” could be done. That’s part of also penetrating beyond the stereotype. Once you live the language it’s harder to rely on stereotypes to interpret certain groups. It’s a reality that sometimes by necessity we have to code switch in terms of language and the environment.
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Loop 21: Does economics play a part in black kids being accepted in these white private schools? In the trailer your son, Idris, mentioned his classmates asking whether each other were rich or poor. How did you prepare him to answer that question?
Brewster: That is not an area I really want to be an expert in. We struggled with that. We are always talking to our son about everything, including wealth. What we do notice [is] there are some reservations in there. In Shaker Heights, OH the reason those school did so well is because they made this a school conversation. Our film looks at our personal experience, we don’t want to be experts. It’s unusual for parents to be open with our kids. Many of us are scared to open Pandora’s Box. We talk about Affirmative Action and what that means. We talk about what it means to be black in a white environment.
Stephenson: We reinforce the mantra that money is not what defines him as a human being.
Startling Facts from the Office for Civil Rights Data Collection Report.
- Teachers in elementary schools serving the most Hispanic and African-American students are paid, on average, $2250 less per year than their colleagues in the same district working at schools serving the fewest Hispanic and African-American students.
- Less than a third of high schools serving the most Hispanic and African-American students offer calculus and only 40% offer physics.
- African-American students are over 3½ times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.
Read the full summary HERE.