The Frederick Douglass High School, a historically black school dating from 1883, was once the school of choice for Baltimore’s middle-class African American families. Today, Douglass serves an inner-city community living in poverty, suffering from low student test scores, a shortage of qualified teachers and a 50% dropout rate. The latest film from Academy Award-winning filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond, HARD TIMES AT DOUGLASS HIGH A No Child Left Behind Report Card examines the daunting challenges faced by many of America’s urban high schools.
Alan and Susan Raymond spent one year filming in Frederick Douglass High School, which has a rich history of successful alumni including civil rights activist (Brown v. Board of Education) and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Shot in classic cinema vérité style, the film captures the complex realities of life at Douglass, and provides a context for the national debate over the controversial No Child Left Behind Act. The documentary focuses on the brutal inequalities of minority education. Some critics would call this story an American tragedy and possibly the most important issue of social justice in our society.
Douglass Principal Isabelle Grant oversees a staff of teachers that is two-thirds non-certified, while many are substitutes unqualified to teach their subject areas. The lack of resources in the school is palpable with most classrooms lacking enough textbooks for the students. On any given day, 200 to 300 students are absent out of a total enrollment of 1100. Due to an achievement gap of four to five years below grade level, the ninth grade students present the greatest challenge and will require intensive intervention from an already overwhelmed teaching staff. By the end of the school year, 50% will drop out or simply not attend school. Mrs. Grant and her staff struggle to raise state assessment scores as a Maryland State monitor continually watches over Douglass with the threat of a state takeover.
At the same time, there are reasons for hope. The high school boasts an award-winning music program, named after Douglass graduate and jazz great Cab Calloway, that includes a choir, a marching band, a jazz combo and an orchestra. The basketball team were Maryland State Champions two of the last three years. And the outstanding debate team consistently wins trophies at the Baltimore Urban Debate League. Students Sharnae, Jordan and Matt tell their stories of struggling to overcome the enormous challenges of splintered families and peer pressure as they navigate their high school days. With the support of Douglass, these students have demonstrated resilience in the face of formidable odds.
Eventually, the Douglass staff fails to meet the adequate yearly progress required by the No Child Left Behind Act and the city and state wrestle for control of the school. Many urban schools cannot meet the demands of the federal law. By 2007 one in four of the nation’s public schools failed to show improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act and were threatened with sanctions. Douglass is eventually restructured and the principal is removed along with many of the staff. The No Child Left Behind Act becomes more controversial and widely debated as punishment to urban schools rather than a supportive agent of change. This historically black school once again enters another era as it continues to struggle and survive America’s treatment of minority students..