Tuesday, March 10, 2020
by Alicia Benjamin
If you are concerned at all about the decline of public school education in America, you’ll want to see the documentary I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School. But beware. You’ll feel great sadness as you guess that many of these radiant children in North Philadelphia will not graduate from high school—not because they can’t do the work—but because the madness and trauma of their everyday lives will prevent them.
The film, which won an Academy Award in 1994, features M. Hall Stanton Elementary School students and principal Deana Burney. Shot in the early 1990s, I Am a Promise, a film that is still sadly relevant today, vividly shows Stanton’s gritty and crowded neighborhood. Abundant trash and boarded up homes decorate the area and sloppy graffiti is painted everywhere. This was the last phase of the tragic crack epidemic and lots of people are aimlessly walking the streets and hanging out on the corners.
The area is littered with crack vials and used hypodermic syringes that the students, 4- to 10-year-olds, pick up sometimes on their way to school, on the playground and inside the school. Stanton officials have instructed the children to give the drug paraphernalia to the janitor.
All of the 725 students are African-American, 90 percent live in poverty, most live in single-parent homes, and a large percentage of the parents have drug or alcohol abuse problems.
Burney, who is white, is hard-nosed, yet compassionate, and talks vigorously to all of Stanton’s students in the auditorium on the first day of school. “What kind of students are you?” she asks. “Talented, intelligent and gifted,” they reply in unison. “We call you that because we know you are genius children,” Burney says.
But the positive message and feel-good imagery of Burney’s morning speech is shattered when Raymond tells us “a good part of each day is spent by the principal dealing with discipline problems.” Cut to Burney moderating an argument between two boys who were caught fighting. Cut to the school nurse wrestling with Cornelius as he’s fighting one of his classmates. Cornelius is described as a bright and intelligent third grader who takes Ritalin twice a day to control his hyperactive and aggressive behavior.
Burney, who has a tactile hands-on approach with her students, comes to school at 6 a.m. most days and leaves at 7 p.m. on many nights. She often stands outside the building when school is dismissed to watch the children walk home. As we see her touching her students gently and directing them across the street, we also see police cars passing by and hear sirens loudly ringing.
“I pray every day that nothing ever happens at dismissal time or in the morning,” she tells Susan Raymond, director of the film. At the end of one day, school officials try to allay the fears of a father who is afraid his 9-year-old daughter has been raped. Police report that a child, indeed, has been sexually assaulted but nobody knows the child’s identity. After frantic phone calls to the local police precinct and the girl’s hangout places, the father learns that his daughter is at a friend’s house.
But hope does periodically peek through the gloomy climate of the film.
John Coats, a committed African-American male teacher who has been given an all-male class to shape, was assigned 19 boys who were designated as discouraged learners in kindergarten.
As he talks to the boys about issues that they themselves bring to class—racism, alcoholism and drug addiction—Coats often places his hand gently on their heads. “They want to learn, but before they are able to learn they want someone to understand them … not so much to pamper them, but to show that they care and love them,” Coats says.
Nadia, another of Stanton’s jewels, is a member of the school’s mentally gifted program. When life with her crack-addicted mother and father became too chaotic and dangerous, Nadia, a fifth grader, asked an elderly neighborhood man if she could live with him. The man, who she calls her “grandfather,” agreed.
As Raymond talks to Burney at the end of the school year, the principal holds back tears when Raymond asks her what lies ahead for the graduates. “It’s depressing that I don’t have any control and I know there’s massive indifference to kids in the inner city,” she said. “There’s such inequity,” she said.
Burney soon burns out. She left Stanton shortly after the documentary was shot. But during the commentary section, recorded more than 10 years after the film’s release, Burney’s voice is filled with love for the students. “This is a very strong community,” she said. “I received a lot of support from the parents and the community. … I saw myself as the gatherer of gifts. The students brought the gifts of wanting to learn.”
I Am a Promise is alarmingly relevant today and poignantly points to the obstacles that many children in America must face to get a quality education.