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Jun 25 2008 - 09:17 AM
A Few Thoughts on Douglass High
As I sat watching the premiere of Hard Times at Douglass High, a few thoughts came to mind during and after the documentary. For starters, the entire documentary parallels the 1989 docudrama, Lean on Me, which starred Morgan Freeman as Joe Clarke, principal of Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey. The movie revolves around Clarke's efforts to save Eastside High from state takeover if students failed to pass the basic minimum skills test. There are eerie similarities between Eastside High and Douglass High. For instance, the demographics of the schools are similar and both schools have award winning choirs. Never one to back down to the state or administration, Clarke uses various tactics such as locking all the exit doors to prevent drug dealers from entering the school, ensuring that “his students” have a chance to study in a calm and safe atmosphere. During the course of the movie, Clark visits the homes of students, challenges parents to raise the expectation level of their children and consoles a female student after she finds out about her pregnancy. The students at Eastside High eventually answers Clarke's challenge and pass the basic minimum skills test within one school year, and thereby avoiding state takeover. The movie aptly ends with Clarke walking with his students singing the school's alma mater:

Fair Eastside, by thy side we'll stand, and always praise thy name To ever lend our hearts and hands to help increase thy fame The honor of old Eastside High calls forth our loyalty So cheer for dear old Eastside High, lead on to victory!

Though aspects of the movie are fictional, the feel good ending in Lean on Me is one I feel is still within grasp of students, faculty and parents at Douglass High. Like the students at Douglass High, I attended a public high school in the inner city. The difference between Douglass High and my alma mater DeWitt Clinton are not that many. Graduation was never a question for me and friends such as Twaji Ewool, Adjet Kodia or Tavita Ramlakhan as it was for many students at Douglass High. The demographics and the size of the schools are similar. However, at Clinton, teachers held students to a higher standard. Coming to class everyday didn't translate to a passing grade if a student performed poorly on exams and missed required work. Preparation for the statewide Regents examination encompassed most of the semester prior to the test and teachers were readily available during school or after to help students. Now I'm not blaming Douglass High's myriad problems on the teachers and administrators but from what I watched, they are part of the problem. At the very beginning of the documentary, the principal is heard asking students what time school starts as she didn't have a clue as to what time it started. One parent laments that her son's teachers often praise him as an outstanding student during parent teacher conferences, but his report card often tells a very different story. I've never been a fan of social promotion and never will be because it lowers expectations and do not prepare students for the next level of their educational journey and beyond. Towards the end of the documentary, there is a mass scramble to graduate hundreds of students who didn't meet graduation requirements. It is essentially social promotion in disguise. This occurred with the full support of the principal, Isabelle Grant, and her staff. In an ever increasing competitive world, what chances do these students stand once they leave Douglass High?

The larger problem at Douglass High and many similar schools, is the lack of a two parent home or parent involvement in the education of their children. As was apparent in both Lean on Me and at Douglass High, many students came from a one parent home or were living with a grandparent. I, along with many of my high school friends, came from a two parent home and we can all testify that the love, dedication, effort and commitment our parents put into our education is one of the reasons we were able to graduate high school and subsequently college. At the first parent teacher conference of the school year, many of the teachers at Douglass High lamented the absence of parents-especially those of poor performing students. Now there may be many reasons for the absence of the parents, e.g. taking care of their younger children or working late, but there is little to suggest that, judging from the comments of the students themselves, many of whom admitted the lack of interest in their education by their parents. The first lessons that every child learns in life doesn't come from the classroom, it comes from home. As Joe Clarke persisted in Lean on Me, it is the job of parents and administrators to raise the expectations of students. Presidential hopeful Barack Obama echoed Clarke's sentiments in his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention four years ago. “Go into any inner city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach our kids to learn; they know that parents have to teach, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations,” the then Illinois state senator claimed. If a student knows they can slack off, miss work and exams, and yet still graduate with a diploma, what is their incentive for coming to class on a regular basis and studying? Hard Times at Douglass High is a story that needed to be told. Hopefully, the documentary starts a serious discussion about the social elements that inevitably affects students' abilities to perform.

Posted in: ExhibitsMeet the Staff|By: George Nantwi|30552 Reads