Three decades after it burned to the ground — and into the national consciousness — the South Bronx struggles to shake its reputation as a community in despair. But in the Morrisania neighborhood, one small school offers an example of the borough’s new beginning.
At the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics (BCSM), principal Edward Tom stands outside on the school’s very first day, greeting each arriving student with a handshake and hug. A rookie principal who traded his financially lucrative career as a Saks Fifth Avenue executive for the less glamorous job as a public high school math teacher, Tom is committed to improving the lives of low-income kids of color. Often acting as a surrogate father figure, he uses motivation and discipline to get students to focus on a rigorous and meaningful education and become college-bound scholars. At BCSM, an 80 is a passing grade, not a 65. Mandatory after-school tutoring awaits all students not meeting the standard.
WHATEVER IT TAKES chronicles the struggles and triumphs of this innovative public high school. While the learning environment is a safe haven compared to many of the students’ former schools, principal Tom’s ideals run up against reality midway through the school year. More than half of his students are failing, detention hall is overflowing, and gang members start recruiting at the school. Even some teachers harbor doubts, exhausted from 16-hour workdays and disillusioned with Tom’s inconsistent discipline policy.
Fourteen-year-old Sharifea is a talented ninth-grade girl with big dreams, but even bigger obstacles. She dreams of attending medical school and becoming a pediatrician, but with her formerly crack-addicted mother now sick with hepatitis, Sharifea is forced to care for her two younger siblings, leaving little time or energy to focus on her schoolwork. Knowing that Sharifea requires much more than daily tutoring, principal Tom discovers a three-year summer enrichment program sponsored by Dartmouth College, which could radically change the direction of her life. While Sharifea recognizes Dartmouth as her big chance, her poor grades threaten to disqualify her from participation. In the 11th hour, her mother finally shows up for an emotional meeting with Principal Tom, desperately hoping that a solution can be worked out.
WHATEVER IT TAKES is a deeply emotional story of dedicated teachers and cutting-edge ideas, united in their vision to restore hope to a community.
Filmmaker Christopher Wong provided an update in February 2010 on what some of the people featured in WHATEVER IT TAKES have been doing since filming ended:
Edward Tom is still the principal of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics. He just saw his first class graduate, and he is thrilled to report that 84 percent of his original ninth-grade class finished high school on time. (The average public school graduation rate in New York City is around 54 percent.) Almost every one of those students is headed to college, and thus far, the school has been awarded more than $3 million in merit scholarships to some of the best colleges in the nation. Tom hopes to build on his school’s success by starting three more schools in the South Bronx.
Sharifea Baskerville is currently enrolled in a program in upstate New York that caters to at-risk youth. Due to an unfortunate family tragedy, Sharifea was forced to move away from the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics. However, she is doing well in her new program, and at last report, was receiving As and Bs in all of her classes. Sharifea is on track to graduate in about a year.