This post is co-written with Elaine Weiss.
The negative impact of poverty on a child’s educational achievement is indisputable. Whether the metric is school grades, state assessments, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), the SAT—the scores of low-income children are far lower than those of their wealthier peers. The reasons for that gap—and how our nation should respond—is the subject of heated debate and is explored by filmmaker Jyllian Gunther in the award-winning documentary, The New Public.
The film is inspiring and sobering as it examines the experiences of students and teachers at the Brooklyn Community Arts & Media (BCAM) High School. BCAM is a new, small public school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where one-third of the residents live below the poverty line and the graduation rate is 40 percent.
With nuance and humor, Gunther shows how poverty presents many obstacles to effective teaching and strong learning. It showcases BCAM’s ability to overcome some of those obstacles through relationship-building and teaching to students’ strengths. But it also demonstrates that no matter how dedicated and focused the teachers and leaders are, a school will too often be unable to transform its students’ academic lives.
Gunther follows BCAM’s inaugural class during its freshman year, and then returns to document its senior year as well. Several of the Bed-Stuy ninth-graders entering BCAM’s doors speak frankly of their unhappiness at their past schools. Students and parents discuss the failures in those schools to reach students, or of being kicked out or asked to leave.
We see BCAM faculty and staff grapple with how they can best overcome gaps in their students’ learning. Research suggests that those learning gaps begin prior to kindergarten and widen over subsequent years. As Kevin Greer, a veteran teacher of honors English at a large public high school in the Bronx, describes, “Kids here have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about.”
The teens also face deficits in skills that are often misnamed “non-cognitive”—like social, emotional and behavioral skills. Because we can’t measure resilience, perseverance, capacity to communicate, and appropriate interaction with peers, we tend to pay far too little attention to these qualities that researchers know contribute to academic and life success.
But BCAM educators strive to nurture these characteristics. Gunther highlights some of the school’s less orthodox approaches, such as students’ engaging in meditation practice. A social worker, Charlene Fravien, also leads the “Fly Young Women” empowerment group, where we listen in on discussions about body image and race. Fravien says the group is designed to help these students communicate more effectively—the members were selected because they are known to be “much more short-tempered—the girls you don’t mess with.”