How much can you change a school in one academic year? That question threads through the PBS special 180 Days: A Year Inside An American High School. The documentary, which premieres March 25, follows the day-to-day struggles facing the administrators, teachers and students at Washington Metropolitan High School, an alternative school in Washington, D.C.
Also known as D.C. Met, the school serves students who are grappling with an array of challenges — poverty, broken homes, homelessness and decaying communities — many of which do not end when the dismissal bell rings.
While 180 Days focuses on D.C. Met, it illustrates many of the challenges educators encounter in environments of concentrated poverty, often in schools with limited resources. At D.C. Met, some students are homeless, are parents themselves or have parents who abuse drugs. Others, like graduate Raven Quattlebaum, who is featured in the film, may have been involved in gang activity.
"I had to worry about a lot of things in my life other than schoolwork," Quattlebaum, now a college student, tells NPR's Celeste Headlee. "I had to go home and deal with other things."
Metcalfe County High School in rural Edmonton, Ky., operates in a very different environment, geographically. But Principal Kelly Bell says that some of the challenges at her school are similar. Metcalfe County High serves an area with the state's second-highest unemployment rate and many students travel long distances to reach school each day, Bell tells Headlee. In 2010, Metcalfe County High was ranked 211 out of 230 Kentucky high schools.
Both schools have seen success in improving student performance. At D.C. Met, every student in the school's first graduating class received their diplomas in 2012, says former principal Tanishia Williams-Minor. And in Kentucky, after launching a turnaround effort at Metcalfe County High in 2010, Bell says the school now ranks 50th among the state's high schools.
Williams-Minor says part of that success at D.C. Met is a result of teachers who are highly engaged with their students. Educators there work closely with students to understand their individual challenges inside and outside of school, ensure they're coming to school each day and help students one-on-one to prepare to apply to college.
Metcalfe County High has helped boost student performance, in part, by offering a variety of vocational programs. Students can earn several certifications at school, including certified nurse aide, pharmacy tech and others, says Kelly Bell.
180 Days can only scratch the surface of the personal stories students from difficult environments have to tell, says Williams-Minor. And when people "think of the dropout crisis ... we want them to think of students like Raven," she says. "We had 30 seniors [in 2012]. There are 30 different stories that we could have told about students who overcame something."
180 Days: A Year in the Life of an American High School can be seen, starting March 25, on PBS stations around the country.
In a clip from 180 Days aired on Talk of the Nation, D.C. Public Schools Superintendent for Alternative Schools Terry DeCarbo tells the D.C. Met staff that Principal Tanishia Williams-Minor's contract was not renewed. (Williams-Minor now works for the New York City Department of Education.) When Talk of the Nation asked D.C. Public Schools for a statement in response to the film, they shared the following:
180 Days accurately shows what we've long known at DCPS — many of our students face tremendous barriers well before the school day begins. It's why we work to ensure our schools are not only rigorous academics environments, but also supportive to meet our students' social and emotional needs. Schools like Washington Met, while not typical American high schools, were specifically designed to address these challenges. We believe there is a fascinating story to be told about the lives of students at Washington Met but unfortunately, even given unprecedented access, the movie fails to show the real role that the school plays in educating these students. Rather than focus on teaching and learning, the movie spends a significant amount of time on personnel matters on which DCPS does not comment.