180 Days: A Year In An American High School debuts tonight on PBS at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Washington Metropolitan High School, the subject of PBS’ 180 Days: A Year In An American High School, is a school that serves not just as an educational institution but also as a home and family for many teenagers in its community. Only seven percent of its students are proficient in math; it is dismally behind what the government deems as “Adequate Yearly Progress.” It is a school propping up a community’s youngest generation. Its problems are not the problems of other public high schools, or at least, not entirely. The constant threat of budget cuts hangs like a sword of Damocles over the heads of faculty, staff, and students; every conversation begins and ends with cost. In addition to the constant stress of funding, the school is regulated by a tangled mess of policy, policed by an ever-mounting pile of bureaucratic paperwork. “Stretched thin” does not really begin to describe how desperately the school’s resources are being taxed—“scraped within an inch of its life” seems more appropriate.

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Given that DC Met is such a bleak case, the filmmakers behind 180 Days set up camp for a year, studying the methods, interviewing the students, and following the teachers and administrators as they try to pull the high school and its students out of the hole they’re in. Documentary is a tricky balance of journalism and storytelling, but 180 Days manages to strike that balance, repeatedly. The four-hour doc is split into two parts, roughly corresponding to the two semesters of the school year. The documentary works to establish characters quickly and then follow them with perseverance throughout the year. At times, it seems that 180 Days is not sure if it wants to structure itself around stories or around the timeline, but at its best, the structure fades into the background, letting the story of the school shine through.

The first and last 45 minutes of the documentary are the strongest—the first chunk of part one ends with Raven C., a junior and 17-year-old single mother, dropping out to move to Texas and graduate there—maybe. The back half of part two starts with DC Met’s senior prom and rides on that momentum to the depressing but powerful finish. The primary message of 180 Days is that everyone is trying very hard to make DC Met the best school it can be. But they are fighting a fight with the odds stacked preposterously against them. Science teachers are trying to teach physics to students who have never learned to multiply. English teachers are assigning one-page papers to students who don’t know how to read. The rewards and punishments of the educational system being what they are, schools lean toward maximizing reportable numbers. That means prioritizing attendance, graduation rates, and the pass-rates on the DC-area standardized test, the DC Comprehensive Assessment System.

There are no simple answers presented here, either—though the standardized test system is demonstrated to be flawed, there is no single solution offered for assessing student or school performance. Instead, the documentary’s length and breadth serves to show just exactly how complicated the issue of public education is. The school’s teachers and staff have job descriptions that defy convention—two staffers are designated to go door-to-door in the neighborhood, finding students that should be in school, for example. A guidance counselor walks from classroom to classroom informing students that one of their classmates was shot for getting into an argument on the sidewalk. College counselors intervene with admissions officers on the behalf of their students, pleading for a few thousand dollars more financial aid. A former corrections officer coaches basketball and runs in-school suspension, a program designed entirely to keep troublemaking students from disrupting the others without sending them back to unpredictable and unsupportive homes.

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Atmospherically, 180 Days does an incredible job at transporting the viewer back to high school. We learn to recognize certain students and faculty members based on what we know about them in their one-on-one interviews, so chaotic shots of crowded hallways are punctuated with a familiar face or two. The interviewers are careful to let the students and teachers speak for themselves—which means that all of the participants are giving us their unvarnished view of the world, whether that is their poetry, their politics, or their opinion of another girl’s behavior in class. It’s immediately striking how universal the problems of these high schoolers are—and doubly upsetting to learn how many have seen multiple friends gunned down in street violence, how many have been abandoned by parents and abused through intimacy. The students speak with uncanny perspective about why they made life-altering mistakes at 13, 14, or 15. Raven C. speaks of missing her father, and so finding solace in a romantic relationship with a man who wanted a child. A boy named Rufus talks about going through group homes after being sent to juvenile detention. Another young woman named Raven (Raven Q.) sold drugs as a middle-schooler before turning to the church and returning to school. Numerous students are taking care of younger siblings or children; many others have lost parents to illness or drugs. And they are yet to turn 18. It’s hard to imagine that these are the stories of young people. It’s worse to see how even with their preternatural perspective, they are largely unable to break free of the system that binds them. Rufus explains to the camera that he worries about who he will be in 20 years. “I don’t want to grow up and be that guy who’s always saying… ‘What if?’” At the end of 180 Days, Rufus is arrested and placed back into a group home.

“Injustice” is not a word used in 180 Days, but it is ever-present in the life of the school. The school’s story is intercut with newspaper headlines, statistics, and clips of speeches from public policymakers, and to put it bluntly, the situation is grim no matter how you look at it. The documentary introduces public education as the civil rights issue of our era, and reading through its statistics, it’s hard to disagree.

But to its enormous credit, 180 Days is not an opinion piece. Indeed, the messy middle two hours speak to the documentary’s insistence on presenting complexity. Stories are presented with surprising detail and candor, and the filmmakers make enormous effort to capture every possible aspect of the students’ lives. There’s class, but of course there is also the basketball team and the cheerleading squad. There’s the church groups and the college fairs and the day when report cards are given out. The daycare center and the music teacher’s life story and the struggles of a first-year teacher. The only point of view the documentary unequivocally adopts is the opinion that everyone at DC Met is trying to make it work. It may not actually be succeeding—or the methods might not be perfect—but this is not a school without a community. This is a school with an enormously dedicated community, one that works overtime to make prom both beautiful and cheap, one that counsels seniors throughout the year to get them to graduation day.

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One of the most powerful figures in the documentary is the school’s principal, Tanishia Williams Minor, a woman driven by a passion to make DC Met’s students the best they can be. Part of the school’s challenge is that No Child Left Behind ties the students’ success on the DC CAS to the school administrators’ careers. At the very end, Minor—who is shown to be both competent and dedicated, for what it’s worth—is removed from her post. What’s most upsetting about this moment is not just that she seems to be unfairly punished, but also that these students who are barely getting by are losing a figure who knows all of their names, listens to all of their problems, and acts as mother/nanny/bully/teacher to them, for 180 days of the year. The problem is not the school, at the end of the day—it’s everything. This is a world where success is virtually prohibited—it’s our own dystopia, right under our noses. 180 Days may be a tad too long and a little disorganized, but in vision and tone, it says and does everything it needs to.

Stray observations:

  • Considering all the debate that rages around violence in video games, it’s especially interesting to hear the theory advanced that video games in this neighborhood keeps kids indoors, where it’s much safer.
  • Delaunte has one of the most heartbreaking stories in the documentary—the final scene where he does his family’s laundry as his classmates graduate is one of the best silent montages in the documentary.
  • Occupy Wall Street makes a brief cameo, as teachers from local schools collect in DC to chant “We teach the 99 percent.”

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