Thompson: The Tragic Endings of "180 Days" (Plus DCPS Response)
Viewers had been warned, but the tragic conclusion of PBS's 180 Days was more excruciating than anticipated. The first two hours balanced the sorrows that students had endured with their concrete displays of grief and coping. Delaunte was covered in tattoos in a way that could terrify outsiders. They are tributes to his deceased mother, Viola. His "FOE" tat is not a gang symbol; it means "Family over Everything." Raven shows us her private shrine for deceased loved ones, as well as symbols of triumph.
Similarly, the educators at D.C. Met alternative school prepared conscientiously for the best practices of demonstrating abstract concepts in concrete and understandable ways. Sports and the music program (which was destined to be cut) played essential roles.
Early in part two, the educators' efforts to keep Rufus in school died when his mother transferred him. It was the only scene that I could not watch, forcing me to twice leave the room. The goodbyes were interminable because everyone knew what the future would be for the kid with that captivating personality. Rufus was in a daze, a doomed student walking, not noticing a classmate he bumped into. As Rufus exited his last loving sanctuary, he looked to be preparing for his cruel fate.
D.C. Met did the opposite when trying to avoid its predestined outcome. In panic, a helter-skelter approach to test prep was thrown together. Hands-on instruction became a parody of itself as the rush to remediate morphed into the syndrome known as "lost in activity." Students were forced to drink from a firehose with only a desperate hope that enough disembodied facts would stick in their brains until testing concluded.
D.C. Met had one last great triumph, its homemade prom. The staff pulled together to fund it. They again proved that, over everything, school must be family. As D.C. Met, once again, wrenched dignity and inspiration from adversity, the stage for the final heartbreak was set.
Principal Tanishia Williams-Minor was fired. The central office did not even wait for the test scores to come in. PBS was not allowed into the meeting where the dismissal was announced. But, viewers were allowed to hear the impassioned protests by teachers in support of their leader.
I have no doubt that the true believers of test-driven "reform" had the best of intentions when they rolled the dice and imposed rushed accountability-driven reform. These well-meaning ideologues seem unable to face up to what their risky gamble has wrought. Now, they seem vested only in justifying themselves.
In the aftermath, NPR's Talk of the Nation received a response from the D.C. Public Schools to the film. It read:
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.-JT (@drjohnthompson) Image via.