struggles despite No Child law
June 23, 2008
Ben Nuckols - Jun.
23, 2008 12:00 AM
BALTIMORE - The
law is called No Child Left Behind, but anyone who claims it's living up to its
billing probably hasn't spent much time at Frederick Douglass High School.
Veteran documentary filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond did, gathering footage at
the historic west Baltimore school during the 2004-05 school year. What they saw
left them certain that for inner-city schools to succeed, they need more than
standardized tests that measure students' reading and math skills.
Their film, "Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card,"
premieres Monday on HBO.
The Raymonds won an Academy Award for best documentary feature for 1993's
"I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School," shot at a school in
north Philadelphia. They decided to revisit urban education in the wake of No
Child Left Behind, the Bush administration's signature education policy that
took effect in 2002.
"We realized that this was a very profound piece of policy that was going to
change the face of public education in America and that we should go back and
look at what's happening," Susan Raymond said. "These are the children who are
going to be left behind."
With their unvarnished observations of life inside Douglass' walls, the Raymonds
capture the myriad challenges of educating children in impoverished urban
neighborhoods. Students show up at school but never report for class, instead
roaming the halls. Teachers complain they can't assign homework because they
don't have enough textbooks for students to take home. And the principal labors
under the knowledge that if test scores don't improve, she'll be replaced.
Established in 1883 as the Colored High and Training School, Douglass is the
nation's second-oldest high school built specifically for African-Americans.
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall is among the alumni. Yet today, more
than 50 years after Marshall successfully argued the case that desegregated the
nation's schools, the student body at Douglass remains almost entirely black.
Moreover, because the middle class has long since abandoned west Baltimore, the
majority of students at Douglass live in poverty. Two-parent households are
rare. "I can't name one person that lives in a house with their mother and their
father," a 16-year-old student named Sharnae says in the documentary.
The Raymonds, who got their start with the groundbreaking 1973 PBS documentary
series "An American Family," chose Douglass in part because of its history and
in part because the principal at the time, Isabelle Grant, was accommodating.
The husband-and-wife team, plus a sound recordist, were given unfettered access.
The filmmakers captured fights in the hallways. They watched as teachers
struggled to maintain discipline, then vented to each other about the lack of
resources. And they were in the locker room after Douglass' basketball team was
knocked out of the state playoffs.
In one of many wrenching moments, an English teacher, Mr. McDermott, gets fed up
and resigns in the middle of the school year. "Teaching becomes secondary, and
discipline is the main thing that goes on," he says. "I don't feel like I'm
making a difference anymore."
The film finds rays of hope. Douglass has a well-run music production program, a
flourishing debate team and a spirited marching band, and some of the school's
best students channel their energy into these outlets. And at the end of the
2004-05 school year, Douglass graduated 200 students - its largest graduating
class in 10 years. Fifty of them went to college.
But the story didn't end there. The school continued to fall distressingly short
of No Child Left Behind benchmarks. In 2006, 24.4 percent of Douglass students
were found to be proficient in reading, while math proficiency was just 11.4
While those numbers represented an improvement over the previous year, they
weren't enough to save Grant's job. The principal was forced to retire.
Grant said it was an "impossible task" to meet the proficiency standards, in
part because Douglass began the school year shown in the film with two-thirds of
its teachers not considered highly qualified. "It is utterly impossible to have
youngsters pass a test when you do not have qualified teachers in those testing
areas," Grant said.
Plus, "the class size at the beginning of the school year was huge. There were
40 to 50 kids in a class. ... We didn't have the appropriate funding from the
federal government, nor the state."
At least in the short term, the removal of Grant didn't produce the desired
results. Scores in the four subjects tested by the state were down in 2007, as
was proficiency in reading. Math proficiency remained stagnant. And the
graduation rate declined from 56 percent to 43.4 percent.
Principal Clark Montgomery was installed for the 2007-08 school year. While test
scores for the recently concluded year are not yet available, Montgomery is
confident more students passed. During his first year, Montgomery said, Douglass
improved attendance and graduation rates, added more advanced classes and
boosted its retention rate for ninth-graders to about 75 percent. In 2004-05,
Douglass retained about half its ninth-graders; the rest either dropped out or
But if Douglass fails to boost test scores dramatically, it could face another
Alan Raymond came away from Douglass convinced that reform can't happen
"These are things that really can't happen easily. It takes work, and it takes
resources and qualified teachers and time," Alan Raymond said. "That's what
people have to realize, hopefully - these schools need our help."
On the Net:
Alan and Susan Raymond: