In September 1957, nine African-American students attempted to integrate Little Rock Central High School. When they arrived on the first day of school, they were met by an angry mob of white segregationists who screamed and spit at them. 60 years later, writer, director and producer Sonia Lowman seeks to explore what school segregation looks like today with her new documentary “Teach Us All."
The documentary begins by retelling the events of that tragic event with two members of the “Little Rock Nine.” Minnijean Brown, the girl in the iconic sunglasses that graces countless US history textbooks, said that she wore the glasses so that the mob would not see her crying. These nine are not ancient; they are in their mid-seventies- and society is not as removed from these events as one would like to think.
According to the documentary, one in seven black or Latino children attends a hyper segregated, low-income school. In past decades, as schools became more integrated, white homeowners and tenants moved to the suburbs and de facto segregation began to take place.
The documentary features segregated schools in various cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Little Rock. According to Lowman, these schools lack qualified teachers, good programs and involved parents (who often have to work two or three jobs, and some of whom do not speak English). As a result, these schools are underperforming.
In addition, each of these areas have unique problems. In New York City, the practice of school choice (the practice of having to apply to public high schools) favors wealthy children whose parents are more likely to have time to help them with applications. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, many Latino children struggle to learn English and are stuck in English language classes and cannot devote time to other subjects.
Although the film deals with very heavy subject material, it manages to keep the tone hopeful and avoid a “gloom and doom” victim narrative by featuring students and teachers who are trying to make a difference by raising awareness.
“That’s because I wanted it to be more of a catalyst for action. I didn’t want people to leave feeling totally bummed. That feeling of hopelessness keeps a feeling of stagnation. I wanted to show the potential for change,” Lowman said. She hopes that students realize that if they want to make a positive change in their school district, then they have the power to do so.
Many of the problems that these students face are also experienced by kids right here in Columbus, particularly in the Columbus Schools District. Although these schools receive more funding per pupil from the state than suburban high schools like Olentangy Orange, they do not perform as well.
Just a quick scan of Orange’s website and Columbus City School’s website will show just how strong of an effect de facto segregation can have. There are not nearly as many clubs, teachers, or AP classes in city schools.
Science teacher Jessica Timmons, whose husband teaches in Whitehall, a Columbus City School, said that in the past, wealthier, whiter people lived in the cities, but as “white flight” took place, they also took their businesses with them. This leads to an economic downturn in the area.
“If you are a parent and your priority is putting food on the table and you are working nights, then education isn’t going to be very high on your list [of priorities],” Timmons said.
In order to provide possible solutions to these problems, the film features many urban students and parents going to local lawmakers and inquiring about funding for their schools.
In regards to de facto segregation, Lowman said that the most important thing we can do is to get to know each other better.
“We are so individually siloed. I wanted to use the convening power of film to get people together… There’s such a disconnect between the students and those who are making the policies,” Lowman said.
If any issues arise in suburban schools, it is important that students contact the members of their school boards and learn more about the way that their school is funded. Timmons said that Olentangy school board member Julie Feasel is a great person to contact. In addition, she stated that the No. 1 thing that we can do to improve this issue is to start valuing education more, and putting our energy there.
“We need our out-of-the-box, creative thinkers to become teachers,” Timmons said.
The task of fixing these problems may seem daunting, but the information in Lowman’s documentary raises awareness to these issues while inspiring audiences to take action.
“Public education is essential to our future, and we will insist upon it” - “Teach Us All”