Chalking It Up

Failing public schools affect all Americans. Whether one lives in an urban environment with flat-lining schools or in a suburban area, where most schools still have a detectable heartbeat, everybody suffers when education is left behind. Everybody pays more, too; our taxes fund the prisons and juvenile detention centers housing those who should have been given a chance back in elementary school.

“I taught in a school in South Central [Los Angeles], and I can tell you stories,” says Kelly Amis, sitting in the living room of her St. Helena home, describing the two years she spent in a classroom as a Teach for America corps member. “At least half of the teachers there—a person with means would never allow their kids to be in the classroom with that teacher.”

Amis is taking a mid-morning break to talk about her latest project. A Fulbright Scholar with an MA in education policy analysis from Stanford, Amis has written and directed Teached, a series of short films that premiered at the Napa Valley Film Festival in November. The goal of the project is to provide a “candid” assessment of the nation’s race-based achievement gap.

Though Amis is a first-time filmmaker, literally learning how to edit by making Teached, her novice skills aren’t reflected in the film’s quality. Each 10–20 minute segment captures issues crucial to classrooms and communities across the United States. “The Path to Prison” tells the story of one of her former students, 28-year-old Jerone, raised in South Central and funneled from one bad teacher to another. Eventually, Jerone went to prison like so many others; according to statistics, a black male is more likely to live in a prison cell than a college dorm.

“The whole school was operating in a way that was completely dysfunctional and chaotic,” says Amis. Dismay at the sorry state of the school system led her to a career in education reform, but years working on policy only led to more frustration at the slow-to-change system.

“I’m someone who can be pretty loud,” Amis says with a laugh. “I was kind of naïve when I left teaching. I thought, ‘Oh, people must not know how bad it is. They don’t get that we’re blaming the kids for how bad the schools are, when really we could improve these schools considerably.'”

Twenty years later, she says, the statistics have barely shifted. Nearly half of urban African-American and Hispanic students drop out of school, and of those who do graduate, an estimated one in five remains functionally illiterate. So Amis decided to adopt a different approach, writing the outline for Teached eight years ago. In 2008, a cameraman friend offered to help, and the two went to Washington, D.C., and started filming interviews during inauguration week.

“The research, statistics and news don’t seem to be reaching the public in a way that’s making an impact,” says Amis. “Art can hit people at a more visceral level, reminding people where we should be 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, showing how we really haven’t come very far.”

The second of the two short films, “The Blame Game,” examines teacher accountability in today’s schools—or lack thereof. “I know a lot of inner city parents have given up hope,” says Amis. “They went to the same school [as their children]. They might have had a teacher that slept every day, all day, and he is still there, and he is still sleeping during the day. It’s amazing.” Taking a hard look at tenure policies and hiring and firing practices are two ways that schools can become more efficient, she explains.

The Napa Valley Film Festival premiere sparked passionate discussion among the audience, a trend that Amis would like to see continue, envisioning screenings at churches, schools and libraries across the country. “I hope the films will change the dialogue and bring people back to what I could call a ‘rational conversation,'” explains Amis. “People are so angry now, whatever side they’re on. I agree that it’s unfair to attack teachers and say they are the only problem here, but we have to look at the structure of the profession and how it is negatively impacting our ability to educate every child. You have to be honest about it.”