The original documentary web series, STREET KNOWLEDGE 2 COLLEGE (SK2C), is now streaming on PBS.org! SK2C is a fifteen episode web series, each between three and six minutes long, offering a powerful look at the lives of students and families at FREE L.A. High, an innovative school in South Los Angeles run by the community-based Youth Justice Coalition. The series is part of the public media initiative,American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), to help communities address the high school dropout crisis.
Filmmaker Jennifer Maytorena Taylor gave LPB an insight into filming this powerful series.
Street Knowledge 2 College explores the lives of students at a unique L.A. high school called FREE LA. How did you initially get involved with the school?
I found out about FREE L.A. High School and its parent non-profit organization Youth Justice Coalition through some violence prevention leaders I met in Los Angeles while doing community screenings and workshops with my previous film, “New Muslim Cool“. I often work that way, with one project leading organically to another.
Several of students featured in Street Knowledge 2 College have been pushed-out of schools. Can you tell us about the difference between being ‘pushed-out’ vs. ‘dropping-out’ of school and how this affects the students?
Many of the students at FREE L.A. High – like students in school districts across the country – have had their educations interrupted by zero tolerance rules in their schools. Because these zero tolerance rules usually involve mandatory penalties for even the smallest infractions, and often trigger the involvement of law enforcement on campus, they are cited as a major factor in creating the “school-to-jail track.”
And like the larger national trends in prosecutions and incarceration, these zero tolerance laws are often disproportionately applied to low-income youth, and students of color.
Until recently in Los Angeles – a place famous for its terrible traffic and under-resourced public transit – law enforcement would levy very stiff fines on students for arriving late to school. Students would regularly get cited, fined, and even put into detention facilities as a result of this harsh treatment of tardiness.
So some students, like Tanisha, would just stop going to school rather than risk more tardy sweeps and fines. And they would – I think reasonably – describe their experience as one of being “pushed out” versus “dropping out.”
Fortunately Los Angeles, with the combined efforts of community groups like Youth Justice Coalition and public officials like Judge Michael Nash and Chief of School Police Steve Zipperman, has recently developed a much more sensible, less punitive approach to tardiness.
And the zero tolerance rules are coming under increasing scrutiny and criticism around the country, where educators and their allies are looking for better alternatives that will still keep students safe but not treat them in such a draconian manner.
The school also involves the students in community organizing. What impact do you feel this has on the students and their motivation to succeed in school?
I think FREE L.A.’s emphasis on community organizing gives students a way to connect the classroom to the real world. Many students describe how the organizing helps them feel a larger sense of responsibility to others.
How did you go about selecting the students featured in the series?
I consulted deeply with the student leaders and staff of the school as I developed the stories, and I taught some video production workshops, to explore the possibilities for working in a collaborative mode on the production.
During the workshops I discovered Claudia Gómez, who was working at the school as an organizer and who also happens to be a very talented, natural-born filmmaker. Claudia came on board the project as the lead community co-producer and co-director, and played a key role in selecting the students whom we profiled.
We looked for a good cross-section of students that would represent the diversity of the school as a whole, and whose stories would represent the different challenges and achievements of the students.
As work on the project continued, Claudia was not the only collaborator on the production team. Several students helped me design and film the opening title sequence, the time-lapse of the graffiti mural in the end credits, and worked as crew members on shoots.
Did you face any challenges in gaining access to the students?
Like so many people, the students were always very busy between school, organizing, family obligations, and jobs. So scheduling was difficult.
Also I think some people felt a bit shy, but when they saw we wanted to focus on their school experiences versus prying too deeply into their private lives, I think that helped them feel more comfortable with being filmed.
Cris Carter’s story is very heartbreaking, but also very telling of the lives of students in South Los Angeles. How did this tragedy affect the production and direction of the series? What impact do you hope his story will have?
Cris’s death horrified our production team, and everyone in the school community. It happened about six weeks after another student had been shot and killed, so the school community was already in mourning and feeling very traumatized.
We knew that death and the possibility of death was already a big factor in these students’ lives, almost every student we interviewed said he or she feared being killed, but Cris’s death really hammered that home.
It made us realize that these stories – ostensibly about education – are really stories about life and death.
‘Fears and Hopes’ is a very powerful episode that not only taps into the students’ fear, but also into what keeps them going. Why did you feel it was important to document this?
In the interviews, Claudia and I decided to ask every person to tell us about their greatest fear, but also their greatest hope. We wanted to see what the students had in common, and we wanted to make sure that we focused not just on the negative, but on the positive as well.
As we advanced with the interview filming, what struck us hard was the consistency of the fears, how deeply they had to with mortality.
With the hopes, what both inspires me and breaks my heart is how simple so many of them are, how many of the students just say their greatest hope to to have a peaceful daily life, or a job doing something good for others.
In the series, you also highlight teachers, mentors and parents who are evidently very passionate about helping the students succeed. What do you feel sets them aside and allows them to have such a strong connection with the students?
As Kim McGill, one of the school’s co-directors explains, many of the adults in the FREE L.A. High community have had life experiences in common with the students.
And for the adults who have not had those life experiences, like math teacher Ameer Martin, I think working at the school gives them a lot of satisfaction that they are working with a population that needs and deserves good teachers.
When filming, did you discover anything that surprised you in regards to the education system in the United States?
I am a proud product of public schools, and they still play a big role in my life. Before I started working as a filmmaker, I taught in a public high school, and now I teach film production in a public university.
And so I’ve been able to see, as both a student and a teacher, that a free, good quality education is key to individual and collective success.
So to see how under-resourced and over-stressed so many schools are, not just in South L.A. but all over the country, makes me very concerned not just for youth whose life chances are diminished, but also for our shared future.
Why is PBS.org the best place for this type of programming? What do you hope viewers will take away from the webseries?
To that end, the American Graduate initiative is doing a great job at exploring the school drop-out crisis from many perspectives, including those of students who haven’t just dropped out, but have actually felt pushed out of school.
I think the “SK2C” series shows that those students want an education just as much as their counterparts in more well-to-do communities. And I hope that viewers will look at the youth and families and educators in the “SK2C” series as their friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens – with many of the same aspirations as youth anywhere in the country.
Can you tell us about the next project you’re working on?
I’m in post-production on a new feature documentary commissioned by Al Jazeera America, about a family of gang violence intervention workers in South Los Angeles. In many ways it will be a follow-up to this project, so once again I’ve been lucky to have an organic path from one film to another.