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Filmmakers filmed inside a Chicago high school for one year to produce the "America is Me" documentary film.
Filmmakers filmed inside a Chicago high school for one year to produce the “America is Me” documentary film. Credit: YouTube/Sundance Institute

BURLINGAME, Cal. – The conversation concerned hair. More specifically, how a black high school student named Jada Buford wore hers, and the comments a white male teacher made that made her feel singled out for her race.

The raw and honest discussion last week, following a screening of an “America to Me” episode I saw at the annual NewSchools Venture Fund Summit, took me by surprise. It was not what I expected from an invitation-only gathering for more than a thousand education leaders, including many who have been obsessed over the years with “disrupting” and “reimagining” a perceived “factory model” of education.

This year’s conference focused on the future of work, and opening night offered a screening of an episode from the upcoming Starz and Participant Media docuseries.

I don’t think you can talk about that future without discussing race and equity, issues at the cornerstone of much of our work here at The Hechinger Report. And “America to Me” deftly forced that discussion, with its detailed and intimate look at students and teachers inside the sprawling, diverse and high-achieving Oak Park and River Forest High, about eight miles outside Chicago.

The film got a lot of positive buzz at the Sundance film festival, in part because it was directed by Steve James, of “Hoop Dreams” fame. It’s an immersive look at a coveted public high school where 95 percent of graduates go to college, but where the gap between black and white students is growing – and hasn’t been addressed sufficiently, according to many people featured in the series.

That’s why I welcomed the discussion of Jada’s hair, and other ways she expressed discomfort about how black students were treated at her school. The series showcases a lack of urgency about the achievement gap from school officials and school board leaders, and the subtle and not-so-subtle ways the gap may be ignored.

At the same time, it shows students making profound statements about inequality in real and visceral ways, captured in everyday moments of their lives at home and in school.

The episode I watched took us inside the classroom of Jessica Stovall, a spectacularly talented teacher, and into the life of her biracial family in her Wisconsin hometown as a way of explaining her passion for racial equity. Stovall is highly attuned to both the lives of her students and the inaction of her superiors toward lagging test performances for black students.

I spoke with Stovall after the panel, and she teared up at the idea of leaving her students at the end of the year, when she’s off to Stanford University to pursue her Ph.D. in Race, Inequality and Language in Education. I wondered if she thinks the television docuseries will change anything in the community or at the school, and she said she hopes that it will. (Beginning this fall, the series will have its debut on Starz, and will also be available online.)

It was also great to meet Jada, who says her experience being filmed gave her a new career goal: she hopes to educate and inform audiences about social issues as a filmmaker herself.

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