Small Steps premiered September 2007.
When the filmmakers first began production in 2003, the high school dropout rate in the Bronx was nearly 70 percent. After inheriting a history of unsuccessful reforms, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gained control of the school system and focused on replacing failing traditional schools with theme-based "small schools". Producer Barbara Kopple and director David Becker decided to follow the story of one such school in the Bronx – the High School for the Contemporary Arts – during its first four years.
One of hundreds of new small schools being created throughout the country, the High School for Contemporary Arts represents one of the leading efforts to reform urban high schools.
The small school experiment resonates in the lives of everyone featured in Small Steps. Fourteen-year-old Nnamdi Amenechi comes from a creative family and hopes to follow in his parents' footsteps. After years of home schooling, he entered the public school system for the first time. The artistic focus, small size and community environment envisioned by the High School for Contemporary Arts seem like a perfect fit for Nnamdi, but the location inside the notorious Evander Childs High School comes as a shock to both Nnamdi and his father.
Fellow freshman Jamal McLelland shares Nnamdi's passion to succeed in the arts. As one teacher puts it, High School for the Contemporary Arts was created for students like Jamal -- creative and talented, but with a unique learning style that may put him at risk of "falling through the cracks" in a traditional school. Despite the challenges ahead of him, Jamal hopes to develop his skills as a poet and visual artist. For the first time, he's looking forward to the start of the school year.
Small Steps follows Jamal and Nnamdi, as well as teachers and principals, from day one of high school through graduation. Viewers meet their parents, spend time with the students at home and in their neighborhoods, and follow the ups and downs of their high school experience. The film provides a ground-level view of the challenges, hopes and dreams of everyday people struggling to provide the opportunities these students deserve.
When the school year begins, however, the reality of public education in the Bronx hits hard. The teachers and students face a range of challenges -- computers envisioned in every classroom are tied up in the bureaucracy; dedicated but inexperienced teachers struggle to keep control in their classes; and basics such as office supplies and textbooks take months to arrive.
But that wasn't the only story going on at the High School for Contemporary Arts. Viewers will also see intimate moments with the students, who open up in poetry classes and in one-on-one sessions with teachers. Throughout the film, we see the impact that a teacher's confidence, parent's involvement and fellow student's collaboration have on the students.
Despite its difficulties, the success of the first year is measurable. Throughout the Bronx, fewer than 50 percent of students ever make it to sophomore year. The High School for Contemporary Arts beats the odds, advancing more than 85 percent of their students to year two. In all, nearly 70 percent of the students graduated – a significant achievement for any school in New York City.
The issues presented in Small Steps: Creating the High School for Contemporary Arts reflect those that America's public education system faces today. With classrooms overcrowded, students performing below their grade level and federal funding favoring high performing schools that don't necessarily need as much help as their low performing counterparts, public schools are struggling.
New York City's plan to break up underperforming high schools into small, theme-based schools offers an innovative alternative to the failing school system its elected officials inherited. Despite the significant early obstacles the High School for Contemporary Arts faced, this small school has changed the lives of its students and shows great promise for the future.
Small Steps was produced by Barbara Kopple and Maureen Dougherty of Cabin Creek Films and directed by David Becker. For more information about the educational reform movement in New York City's public schools, visit www.newvisions.org.
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