Last week I went to Trinity Episcopal School to see "American Promise," the latest education film to spark a national buzz. (The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture is showing it Nov. 9.)
As a journalist and a parent, I was fascinated by the chance to watch them morph from little boys cutting up in the back seat to young men heading into their separate futures. Viewers see them struggle with race-consciousness and parental pressure, learning disabilities and family tragedy, social acceptance and college admissions.
Unlike other recent education movies, such as "Waiting for Superman," a documentary about the Harlem Children's Zone, or "Won't Back Down," a dramatized story based on the push for parent trigger laws, this one doesn't seem to be promoting any one solution or point of view. One young man sticks with the mostly-white private school, which his parents hope will be the ticket to Ivy League education and opportunity. Another goes to a mostly-black public high school. It wasn't clear to me which student was better off in the end. The message can be elusive; a New York Times movie review described the film as exasperating and intellectually murky.
But it can also be a starting point for discussion of real-life challenges that defy simple answers, where race and class get tangled up in individual circumstances. That's the hope at Trinity, which filled the 500 seats set up in its gymnasium for the screening.
We've been hearing a lot about the challenges of African American males in public schools. Trinity, a religious school on the northeastern edge of uptown Charlotte, also sees diversity as a crucial part of its mission. Every year the school brings in speakers or programs designed to open minds and discussions, not only among Trinity faculty and families but at other schools and in the broader community.
Spruill agreed that "American Promise" doesn't offer a simple blueprint for improving the educational success of young black men. But he said it does raise important questions. For instance: What kind of numbers does it take to make diversity succeed? (Trinity is about 20 percent nonwhite).
Idris and Seun appeared to be among a handful of nonwhite students when they started at Dalton. In the film, both talk about feeling like they're always in a racial spotlight at Dalton, and the parents wonder how much their son's challenges are coming through a racial filter. Spruill says Dalton has made changes: This year's kindergarten class at Dalton was 50 percent black or Latino.
The discussion about diversity, cultural competence and African American males has been most visible in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, for obvious reasons. It will be fascinating to see how a private school with a thirst to explore "the way that race and class and education intersect in different ways" contributes to the community's thinking.