“The New Public”
An Idealistic Vision
When an ambitious group of educators create a small, public high school in a poor neighborhood of Brooklyn, their idealistic vision faces the same harsh realities faced by the community and they struggle to adapt.
Former Disc jockey, point guard and teacher, James O’Brien, in 2006 opened a small public high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where 1/3 of those who live there do so below the poverty line. In the past the graduation rate was 40%. O’Brien and his team of eight undertook “an unconventional approach and ambitious mission: create a school with an arts-oriented curriculum that also emphasizes self-development, community collaboration and social change.” At first everyone thought that this was to be a dream come true but then conflicts arose when untested idealism was challenged by long-standing realities that were far bigger than school.
The film follows the students, parents, teachers and other educators over a four year period as together they strove to make a difference in the future of the young people who attended the school and lived in the neighborhood. We are immediately aware that the lives of the youngsters that we see are bold and stark representations of this country’s education and opportunity gaps. In this one school we learn of and witness the complexities faced by urban public schools and communities everywhere. There were dreams of changing the way kids learn to hopefully increase the graduation rate and success level of these children.
At first, what looked like a documentary about some educators changing the world turned into a struggle to adapt and change, while keeping their kid’s futures at the forefront. What makes the documentary special and different from others on the same subject is that it shows the failures, so that the success stories can hold more power. When the school opened in 2006, the educators came in with high ideas. James O’Brien came in as the school’s principal, and hired a faculty of eight individuals who shared the dreams of changing how kids are taught. At first, it seemed like they were trying to teach the kids at a basic level, using art, music, and pop culture ideals to help them understand what they failed to learn in regular public schools. It did not take long before they started to lose students who had told through the years that it was impossible to have fun while learning and that certain goals must be met. One parents was very upset when her son’s grades fell and she claimed that her child was there to learn what was important and not how to tap dance or to sing or to write rap lyrics. As a former high school teacher, I know how she felt.
A large part of the documentary focuses on failures with the idea being that one has to fall in order to get back up and become stronger than before. Some of the students were unable to do away with their pasts and one of the teachers said that it was hard to teach students who seemed unable to understand his teaching and he questioned his place there.
Then the film moves forward to the students in their senior year of high school and we see the changes that took place. We see what these people had to do in order to achieve their goals of helping the kids reach the next stage of their life and be prepared to face the world.
This is not a documentary about a group of educators changing the world. These people learned that they could not change the world by making drastic changes. They had to scale back the arts classes and there were times that it felt like they were becoming more like a regular school, and were not that different at all. Bu then we understand that what makes this work is that the school still works hard to mold the kids into a group that works together, builds together and learns together. Instead of just teaching the kids and then throwing them back out onto the streets, like many public schools, this school still takes a strong interest in the kids who want to learn.
The results are now around 73-percent. 45 of the 60 kids we started out with graduated after their four years. This movie is a story about a school that invests itself in helping kids learn. The hard lesson here is that this school still has to face the reality that there are kids and parents who will always make that job hard.
What we as a nation has to do is to set aside political debates over school funding and philosophy and instead examine one school’s real-world experience. Jyllian Gunther’s “The New Public” looks at whether one experimental school can live up to its own ideals. Biting off a realistically small piece of this subject and showing enough of it to create a strong emotional involvement, this documentary adds to the larger conversation.
We meet English teacher, Kevin Greer, a onetime graffiti-writing drug user, and school founder/principal James O’Brien, who believes his experiences as a DJ and a basketball point guard make him well suited to school leadership. The students share their enthusiasm but as can be expected at any school is that there were discipline problems yet O’Brien does not lose his idealism and we see him working very hard to find a way to bring democratic principles and the need for structure together. His compassion really shines through when we watch as he has a heart-to-heart conference with student John Dargan, who’s being bullied by kids who suspect he’s gay. Suddenly I realized that many of us wished that we had had a principal like him.
Greer’s first approach to teaching these students was to refuse to concede to their obvious difficulties. He seemed distant from the students, and they reacted by yawning or talking among themselves. Greer knew he was not getting through to them. He was frustrated.
Three years later, when members of this first class were seniors, Greer decided to teach a poetry class revolving around William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” This time, however, his demeanor was completely different. He engaged the students by asking them what their own definition of poetry was — and they responded eagerly.
This is that rare film that sympathetically conveys how hard it is to be a teacher in an inner-city school. “The New Public” not only shows what goes on in the classroom — which can be rough if the teacher can’t manage the classroom — but it also goes into the homes of the students she has focused on. There, the odds that the students are trying to overcome are made abundantly clear.
As the United States continues to struggle with education reform, we know that education needs to change. I believe this film can help bring that about.