Each day, Janet Mino patiently coaxes her students to say what they feel and to feel safe. Some are afraid, some are frustrated, and some are eager; all sit in her classroom at John F. Kennedy High School in Newark, New Jersey, and all have special needs. As you see right away in Samantha Buck’s documentary Best Kept Secret, premiering on PBS’ POV Documentary Series on 23 September, Mino and her associates, other teachers, counselors, and staff members, are deeply committed to the individuals in their care, a number that includes the students and their families.
Though the school is chronically underfunded—like so many schools in what Mino characterizes as “inner city” neighborhoods—it provides a kind of haven. As Mino puts it, laughing even as she’s visibly tired, “I should get paid overtime, always… weekends, I’m always thinking about them.” What the documentary goes on to show—after the great work by Mino and her colleagues—is the looming crisis facing each student when he or she “ages out” of JFK, at 21. At that point, the scramble begins, to find an occupation, another facility, or some other structure that might help the young adults and their parents or caretakers transition from the relative shelter of the classroom to a complicated and mostly unforgiving outside world. Where Mino works heroically to find new situations for her graduates, they all face disappointments emerging from their economic situations more than with their abilities. She presses on, and by the end of the film, even if you might feel exhausted for her, you also feel proud and moved.
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