American Promise Documentary – Review and Reflection

American Promise –  

On a frigid cold night I went down to the Hot Docs Bloor cinema to see the final day of American promise. Not knowing too much about the film before going in I was expecting a reality style doc following 2 students through Americas public school system. Then realized it started off with them both off in private school.

Following two good friends from their first day of school till their graduation, the doc reveals the struggles students of colour must overcome to be successful in school.

As a teacher, sitting in the cinema, I wanted to jump into the doc at some points to change what was going wrong at home or school. It was heartbreaking at the same time when both boys reflected on their days at school.

It made me think of students I have taught over my 5 years teaching, the struggles, hurdles and environmental issues that many of them face. Even though this movie was situated in New York I felt that this could have easily been filmed in one of Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods. The school Seun transfer to after not working out in Dalton, seemed filled with energy, pride and africentrism. You see him entering the private school with enthusiasm and life but slowly gets turned into a negative school experience. Going to the new high school with an Afrocentric focus, he starts to excel with differentiated instruction and a curriculum he can relate to. It wasn’t until his younger brother accidentally dies that he is set back and struggles going to school again.

Idris has a bit of an opposite experience through school which I believe has to do with the capital his family has. He fits in better at the private school with parents who navigate the system and is provided more out of school supports. He seems to be accepted better at school but struggles with fitting back in with his community. A few points in the doc he breaks down at home. At one part specially he wants to know if life would be easier if he were white. Idris battled with being mixed, saying he had to speak different at school than in his own neighbourhood.

Both students ultimately end up graduating high school and going to college. Already, they have achieved more than so many of the students that never make it out of high school.

This doc also illuminated how elite and superficial private schools can be. Dalton school wanted to up in diversity simply as a statistic but were unprepared to deal with the socio-emotional aspects of the diversity being integrated. Of course the level of expectation was through the roof with students paying more money for tutoring than tuition. The teachers were teaching content that was enriched and moved rapidly through the curriculum. The school though, welcomed the diversity as long as it wasn’t disrupting their system.

I am a firm believer in public education and the importance of keeping great teachers in the system so that all students receive high quality education. To train teachers in special ed, equity, ESL, technology use and their own subjects to give all students the opportunity to succeed.


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