A new documentary from students in an alternative education program examines why students drop out of school and what can be done to prevent it
By Denise Clay
ABOVE PHOTO: YES Philly students and PhillyCAM instructors get interview with Rep. Kenyatta Johnson (D-Philadelphia).
Every year, Philadelphians are hit with new statistics that talk about who is, and who isn't, being educated in Philadelphia's schools.
According to a recent report from the School District of Philadelphia, the group of students that is being failed the most from the city's educational system is made up of blacks and Latinos. These students are among those driving the school district's higher than acceptable dropout rates.
PHOTO: YES Philly student Will Robinson enjoying the progress of the "Pushouts" documentary production.
Usually, when these numbers appear, people, mostly politicians and irate taxpayers, look for someone to blame. Or they look down on the children themselves. But no one really takes the time to dig deeper and really ask "What makes a kid drop out of school?"
With the help of a grant from the William Penn Foundation's J-Lab Enterprise Reporting Fund, Philadelphia Community Access Media (PhillyCAM) and Voice of Philadelphia, a news website that covers the stories that the mainstream media sometimes overlooks, six students from YESPhilly, an organization that gives young people the chance to get their GED and prepare for college or career researched this question.
The result is the documentary, "Pushouts", premiering at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine Street on Thursday, May 26 at 5:30 p.m. In addition to the film, there will be a panel discussion and Q and A on the film featuring the students who produced the project, and their media production and journalistic mentors.
When PhillyCAM and Voice of Philadelphia received the J-Lab grant, they wanted to research the dropout problem. But they wanted to do it from the point of view of those most affected, said Gretjen Clausing, executive director of PhillyCAM.
Bringing in the kids from YESPhilly was an obvious choice.
"These are young people who have left the traditional school system," said Antoine Haywood, director of membership and outreach for PhillyCAM, said. "YESPhilly helps them get their GED and has a creative component that lets them express themselves through writing, music and video production."
Before they began this project, the students from YESPhilly did some research into the issues that make people drop out of school.
PHOTO: YES Philly students John Riddick and Mary Simmons conduct interviews at Rittenhouse Square.
Through that research, which was a combination of interviews with peers and others and blog posts, they discovered that a combination of a lack of family support, problems with school officials and problems with school policy that turned school into a negative experience, are what causes students to leave school. Thus, the students don't feel as if they've "dropped out" as much as they feel as if they have been "pushed out", thus the title of the film.
While these students knew what the average person thought about those who drop out, the toughest part was making them feel comfortable enough to say it on camera said Mary Simmons, 21.
"We came into this thinking that everyone thinks we're lazy," she said. "The hardest part was getting them to say it in an interview."
But once they did find someone to say it, the next challenge was to not allow the anger that comes with misconception move into the production.
"Everyone has an opinion and they're entitled to it," said William Robinson, 21, "The challenge is not reacting to their opinion while you're doing the interview."
There were other challenges as well. Some were easily solved.
"For me, getting around overall was the challenge," said Dontay Chestnutt, 22. "Everything else was smooth sailing, but there would be days that I didn't have car fare to get to our destination [for the shoot]. But I always managed to try."
"The writing part was overwhelming," said John Riddick, 20. "But everyone on the project helped me out."
Once the project premiers on Thursday, the documentary will be shown on PhillyCAM. The students hope that through seeing this film their "pushed out" peers will feel as if they now have a voice.
"We're hoping that a lot of people understand that we're not being lazy and that we have a story to tell," said Zachary Ragin, 19. "We're going to be heroes for those fighting the stereotype of drop outs."