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'The New Public' screened at ETSU

By Laura Traister
On April 10, 2014

"The New Public," the final independent film in a series of screenings at ETSU, follows the founding of a small public school and encourages discussion about the public education system in our country.
This film documents the lives of the founders and students of a school called Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School, commonly known as BCAM, a small public high school in the neighborhood Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, N.Y.
A crowd turned out to the Martha Street Culp Auditorium on Monday night to watch the film and to participate in a discussion with Emmy award-winning filmmaker Jyllian Gunther and editor Penelope Falk.
On Tuesday, the filmmakers also met with students from the College of Education to discuss the film and its implications for the public school system.
As the film opens, we get to know James O'Brien who, along with the help of others, founded the school in 2006. A former DJ and basketball player, O'Brien was and still is the school's principal. The school was part of a city-wide initiative to transition from huge high schools to small schools where, the hope was, personal attention would lead to an increase in students' success.
Gunther explained the situation: "New York City had very many large high schools that had 5,000 kids, one of which I went to, and they had a lot of kids slipping through the cracks, [there] was this idea ... they decided to shut down all the failing large schools and replace them with small schools, like there were two or three schools in a building that used to be a large school, and the idea was to be able to give kids individual attention, and form relationships so that kids wouldn't fall through the cracks like they did in the big schools."
This particular school emphasized the role that arts and media can play in helping students learn.
The film also focuses on Kevin Greer, co-founder and English teacher, as well as a few individual students in the starting class.
Gunther said that she found out about the project from Greer, who she has known since her own school days. She filmed hundreds of hours of footage during the school's first year when the starting class were all freshmen.
The students faced many problems both at school and at home. One student was shot on the way to school. Theft and fights occurred. Like many high school students, these students dealt with bullying, sexuality and college plans, but many of them lived in the midst of poverty and violence and had little to no support at home.
During the filming process, Gunther realized that the film could not tell a story in only one year.
She came back three years later as the original group of students began their senior year and followed them through to their graduation. That first year, the graduation rate was about 40 percent, much lower than was originally hoped.
However, raw numbers, especially in the first year, are not necessarily the best way to judge a small school's success.
Gunther explained that the first few years brought challenges and disappointments, but the school and administration learned from their mistakes and adapted over time.
"New York has the largest public education system in the country. They opened 350 schools that year and they became sort of the vanguard for the small schools movement, which there's plenty of criticism for ... some people think it's great, there are some people who don't think it's great ... but ultimately over time, research has shown that it's actually done really well."

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