180 Days

180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School is available online (both episodes) if you missed them the previous two nights.

You follow administrators, teachers, and students at an alternative public high school in Washington DC. 50% of the students that register at the beginning of the year don’t attend. They need 300+ students to keep their budget at current levels but continue to lose students to transfers, the justice system, absence, and even death. These kids have had friends die before graduating from high school, have brothers and sisters that are incarcerated, parents that have recently died, teen pregnancy, and poverty to deal with every day.

It’s an honest portrayal of the how complicated education reform is in urban city (like NYC, Chicago, LA, etc) impoverished neighborhoods. Many times the students have experienced more stress, trauma, and mental health issues than the educators that teach them. You follow a passionate principal leading her dedicated staff to make it through CAS testing. CAS is a standardized test that decides more than a student’s ability; your school staying open, your budget, if your teachers or administration will be staying or moving on… The students have challenges that are heartbreaking (being pulled in the middle of learning gains, jail), and some successes that are truly awesome (college acceptance, scholarships, graduation!). If nothing else it illustrates the extent of the loss of cultural capital these students have in their experience; how a little thing like prom can be revelatory.

So what are we to do?

I wish I had an answer. If I did I’d be on a book tour.

Some of my thoughts I’m still working through:

  • There isn’t time for technology here. I can see how it could be a barrier to learning. But I can see ways it could be incredibly valuable - how does technology even function in a district like this?
  • Standardized testing illuminates the problem without solving it. How can you test 10th graders on reading comprehension when they can’t read? How do you provide the necessary remediation? When is there time in the day?
  • How do you go home everyday and create a lesson for students that don’t show up? How do you communicate the value of attendance? Moreover how do you communicate the value of education in a school that has no PTA? Accountability doesn’t end when the student leaves school, but legally (other than truancy) it does.
  • This system, and schools in DC, will burn anyone out. Quickly. This school is already doing more with less, but how is that sustainable?
  • Stability. Stability. Stability.

Let me know what you think?