My palms were sweating as I approached the gates of Forrest Hill Academy. I had never been within a one-mile radius of an alternative school, and certainly had never been hired to spend six weeks working inside of one.
The nonprofit that I’ve spent the last year interning for, re:imagine/ATL, specializes in connecting teens around Atlanta with jobs in the digital media industry. One of their programs, re:imagine/COMMUNITY, actually sends mentors into local schools to teach high schoolers about filmmaking. I was chosen as a teaching assistant for the re:imagine/COMMUNITY program at Forrest Hill Academy: a school for teens who were expelled or suspended from their old schools.
I would be spending two days a week for the next few months working with a small group of students to create a video.
In order to enter the school, I had to walk through multiple metal detectors. It took almost fifteen minutes for someone to track down the counselor who would be showing my mentor and I to the classroom in which we’d be working. For a school meant to serve those who needed the most help, it was severely understaffed and underfunded.
Lamar, Kevin, and Chris were waiting for us when we finally arrived at the upstairs classroom. Being only seventeen, I was practically the same age as all three of them. I think this was one of the main reasons why they were so quick to open up to me. We differed in gender, race, and background, but we were all still teenagers: annoyed about school and stressed about the future.
Our project began with a brainstorming session. Lamar, Kevin, Chris, my mentor, Paras, and I chose to create a video entry for the Future Business Leaders of America contest. FBLA is the largest business-student organization in the world. Our video was one of hundreds competing for an opportunity to have FBLA start a chapter at our school. We already knew that Forrest Hill wasn’t going to win based on school resources, academic accomplishments, or a large demonstrated student interest, so we decided to show off the one thing that we knew we had: a compelling story.
After only a few days of knowing Lamar, Kevin, and Chris, I learned about how they all ended up at Forrest Hill. Lamar had been bullied at his previous school. He secretly brought in a weapon for self-defense; when students began throwing food at him, he took out the weapon and was quickly expelled. Kevin fights an ongoing battle with bipolar disorder. Without having access to resources for proper treatment, it was hard for him to stay focused and disciplined in his original school. Chris, although not bullied or dealing with a mental illness, had a strong temper. The administrators at his school simply didn’t know how to deal with his anger.
Hearing these stories led me to begin researching local alternative schools. Two major Atlanta alternative schools, Forrest Hill Academy and Crim Open Campus High School, have close to no funding, poor academic resources, low average standardized test scores, and the lowest graduation rates of the entire school district. Rather than serving as an actual “alternative school” giving students the unique resources that they require for success, it seemed to me that alternative schools are simply places into which students that couldn’t succeed in their previous schools could be thrown. My job of teaching three students the filmmaking process quickly turned into something more: an interest in the serious flaws of my local public education system.
Lamar, Kevin, and Chris showed an intense determination and passion for storytelling. By the end of our weeks together, my teaching job was practically useless because they all had so quickly mastered our film equipment. It was obvious to me that these three would succeed past high school given their drive and re:imagine’s support—but what about the hundreds of other kids in Forrest Hill? What about the kids not given the chance to be a part of our program?
The issue of Atlanta’s public education system is vast and will likely take decades to solve. But as a high schooler who has seen the failures of the education system first-hand, I truly believe that if all schools were provided with better mental health resources and an emotionally-focused teaching track, students would be much more successful.
I’m hoping to continue to use filmmaking and writing as forms of activism regarding issues with public education. I encourage all readers to research your local school systems—what schools are struggling the most, and why? How much funding is given to mental health resources or even artistic programs rather than athletics?
As young people in America, we control the future of our education system. I truly believe that if we are all determined to make a positive change, change will come.