Television
3:01 am
Mon February 3, 2014

'American Promise' Probes Race Issues In NYC Private School

Originally published on Tue February 4, 2014 5:42 am

Monday evening, PBS will air American Promise, a documentary that traces the lives of two African-American students for 13 years. They both enroll as kindergarteners at The Dalton School, an elite private day school in New York City that says it's making a commitment to diversity.

In the beginning of American Promise, filmmakers Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster set out to chronicle the complete pre-collegiate education of their son Idris and his best friend, Seun Summers. But as time goes on, things become complicated.

Seun's father, Tony Summers, worries about Dalton's ethnic composition — it's about 75 percent white.

"I've been the only black child in the classroom," says Tony. "Wasn't a pleasant thing back then."

He hopes time has changed that — and as the film shows, in some ways, it has. In the early grades, both Idris and Seun did well and enjoyed school. Interviewed at age 5, Seun appeared delighted to be at Dalton.

"I love being at Dalton because it's my favorite school now, and it's always my best school, and I love it there," he said then.

But just a few years later, Seun is no longer thrilled about attending Dalton.

"I hate school," he said. "It's bad, it's hard and I'm in the sixth grade."

So what happened in between? For one thing, explains a Dalton administrator, expectations increased.

As the film progresses, we see it's not just academics that can be challenging, but issues of race and class. In a candid conversation with his dad, a Harvard and Stanford-educated psychiatrist, Idris asks a devastating question.

"I bet if I were white, I'd be better off," says Idris. "Isn't that true?"

Idris is treading a fine line between two vastly different communities — the one at Dalton, and the one in his neighborhood:

"Sometimes I change my voice, where I go, 'Hey, y'all, what's up,' " says Idris. "And I don't talk like I talk at Dalton so they won't make fun of me."

Two Paths

The boys' paths diverge in high school. Sean is very bright, but Dalton's academic demands and his learning style aren't a good match, says Libby Hixson, then head of the middle school.

"This is a high energy, fast turnover, a lot of volume, a lot of ownership," says Hixson. "A lot of things happening at the same time."

Seun transfers to Benjamin Banneker Academy, a mostly black public school devoted to demanding academics and cultural affirmation. Idris continues at Dalton.

Parents of the school's black sixth-grade boys gather at the Brewsters' house for mutual support. One ponders whether the trade-off they're making has other costs.

"We put our children in this environment, and if they are seeing this now, what perception are they having of themselves?" she asks. "Is this something that's going to help them in the future, or hinder them?"

That jury's still out. Filmmaker Michèle Stephenson says part of the reason she wanted to make American Promise was to correct what she says are implicit assumptions built around black boys.

"Around their ability to learn," says Stephenson, "around expectations and impressions of them being, perhaps, a little more dangerous than others."

Increasing diversity, she says, is a good but not final step.

"Diversity is not enough," she says. "There are biases that come along with that diversity that need to be unpacked and dismantled."

She turned the camera on her family and on the Summers so other black families might learn from their experiences.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This evening, PBS will air "American Promise," a documentary that traces the lives of two African-American boys for 13 years. As young boys in the film, they both attend an elite private day school in New York City that's made a commitment to diversity. But as the years go on, the parents question the decision to put their kids in a school that doesn't have other children that look like their own.

"American Promise," which was a Sundance darling last year, takes us on the boys' paths from kindergarten through high school graduation and the challenges in between.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has more.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: In the beginning of "American Promise," filmmakers Michele Stephenson and Joe Brewster are setting out to chronicle the complete pre-collegiate education of their son Idris and his best friend, Seun Summers. Both are attending The Dalton School, one of the country's best private schools. But as time goes on, things become complicated. Seun's father, Tony Summers, worries a bit about Dalton's ethnic composition; it's about 75 percent white.

TONY SUMMERS: I've been the only black child in the classroom. Wasn't a pleasant thing, back then.

BATES: He hopes time has changed that, and as the film shows, in some ways, it has. In the early grades, both Idris and Seun did well and enjoyed school. Here's five-year-old Seun's assessment.

SEUN SUMMERS: I love being at Dalton 'cause it's my favorite school now and I love it there

BATES: But six years later.

SUMMERS: I hate school. It's bad. It's hard and I'm in the sixth grade.

BATES: So what happened in between? For one thing, explains a Dalton administrator, expectations increase.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We do expect a lot of independence, so if kids haven't incorporated those skills by the sixth grade, that's when they start to fall apart.

BATES: But as the film progresses, we see it's not just academics that can be challenging but issues of race and class. In this candid conversation with his dad, Idris asks Joe, a Harvard and Stanford-educated psychiatrist, a devastating question.

IDRIS BREWSTER: I bet if I was white, then I'd be better off. Isn't that true?

BATES: Idris is treading a fine line between two vastly different communities: the one at Dalton and the one in his neighborhood.

BREWSTER: Sometimes I change my voice, so I go like: Hey, y'all. What's up? Or I change my voice, I don't talk like I talk at Dalton 'cause so they won't make fun of me.

BATES: The boys' paths diverge in high school. He was very bright but Dalton's academic demands and Seun's learning style were not a good match, says the head of the middle school.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: This is a high energy, fast-turnover, a lot of volume, a lot of ownership, a lot of things happening at the same time.

BATES: Seun transfers to Benjamin Bannaker Academy, a mostly-black public school devoted to demanding academics and cultural affirmation. Idris continues at Dalton. Parents of the school's black sixth grade boys gather at the Brewster's' house for mutual support. One ponders if the tradeoff they're making has other costs.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We put our children in this environment. And if they are seeing it now, what perception are they going to have of themselves?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Yeah. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Is this something that's going to help them in the future or something that's going to hinder them?

BATES: That jury is still out. Filmmaker Michele Stephenson says part of the reason she wanted to make "American Promise" was to correct what she says are implicit assumptions built around black boys.

MICHELE STEPHENSON: Around their ability to learn, around expectations and impressions of them, perhaps being a little more dangerous than others.

BATES: This increasing diversity, she says, is a good, but not final step.

STEPHENSON: Diversity is not enough. There are biases that come along with that diversity that need to be unpacked and dismantled.

BATES: She turned the camera on her family and the Summers so other black families might learn from their experiences.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And "American Promise" premiers tonight on PBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.