An important film on the nation’s educational crisis premieres on PBS this month. The documentary, 180 Days: A Year Inside An American High School, takes an unprecedented look at a learning institution at the epicenter of the nation’s school reform movement and the lives that hang in the balance. The four-hour film airs from 9:00 to11:00 p.m. ET on Monday, March 25, and Tuesday, March 26, on PBS.
Washington, D.C., became the school reform movement’s ground zero in 2007 when Michelle Rhee became schools chancellor. Test scores rose and fell and now the nation’s capital tops the list of major U.S. cities for its glaring achievement gap: white students best black students by a margin of as much as four to one. The United States ranks near the bottom of all indexes for education among industrialized nations, and most African-American children now attend schools in which graduation is not the norm.
School reform has brought numerous changes and has emphasized standardized testing, partially promoted by the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” initiative, in which school funding and personnel decisions are based largely on the results of high-stakes standardized tests. Tests, however, don’t take into account the troubled population of the school at the center of the documentary, Washington Metropolitan High School—or DC Met, as it is called—a school for children at risk of dropping out. It doesn’t measure the effect that a parent dying or a baby coming or a displacement by Hurricane Katrina or drug-addicted parents or the foster care system have on a student’s ability to succeed—or even to show up for school. And it doesn’t measure the desperate efforts of the school faculty working to reach these children.
The film follows five students—Raven Coston, 17; Raven Quattlebaum, 18; Rufus McDowney, 16; Tiara Parker, 18; and Delaunte Bennett, 18—facing these and other crises. It captures the dramatic battle of Principal Tanishia Williams Minor and the faculty at DC Met, where only 7 percent of students are deemed “proficient” in math and only 19 percent in reading, as they race to reform truants, raise test scores and save their school, jobs—and the lives of their children. 180 Days shows the real faces of those affected by the policies and legislation being implemented nationally.
“We have policy on education and we have reality,” said Jacquie Jones, executive producer of the film, “and 180 Days provides a snapshot into the reality of the on-the-ground troops in the fight to claim the lives and destinies of our children, many of whom are facing seemingly insurmountable challenges in their quest for an education.”
180 Days is produced by the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC), which brings programming about the Black experience to public television. The program is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, a public media initiative supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), that helps communities nationwide understand and implement solutions to address the high school dropout crisis.