Teaching requires long hours and tremendous patience, often with little support from a surrounding community. In the Academy Award-winning documentary I Am a Promise, the community helps the staff at Stanton Elementary School give hope to the hundreds of students who pour through its doors each year. Located in inner city Philadelphia, Stanton Elementary serves an area where 90% of its students (all African American) live below the poverty line, many suffering from behavioral or learning disabilities. Underfunded, the school is allocated only $4,000 per student, while schools in Philadelphia’s suburbs receive up to $32,000 per.
“I saw myself as the gatherer of gifts,” says principal Deanna Burney on the DVD’s commentary track. “Students bring gifts of curiosity, eagerness to learn, wanting to do well in school. Parents have gifts of hope and promise… I think that’s the primary role of the principal, to gather the gifts of the community.” This theme comes up repeatedly: the film starts with a morning assembly for fourth and fifth grade students, whom Burney encourages to repeat after her: they are each “Talented, intelligent and gifted.” The film reports that, only in her third year at the school, Burney has created a remarkable support system for her students. The school offers free breakfast and lunch programs, and as the film’s director notes in voiceover, for many students, these are their only meals. Burney also engages the parents, to help with discipline and tutoring, soliciting parents of struggling children to attend classes with them.
Susan and Alan Raymond’s film focuses on how the teachers come up with innovative solutions for familiar problems. For one of the longest sequences, we observe an experimental, all-male class led by Mr. Coates. Having grown up in this neighborhood and being acquainted with some of his students’ families, Coates provides a male role model for kids who have none. The results of the experiment are stunning: half the students end up making the school’s honor role, and every student in Coates’ class learns to read by the end of the year.
The classroom discussion explored the effects of alcoholism and drug use on their families, and how they might get to a safe place if they see something “bad” happen. The filmmakers on their shared commentary track with Principal Burney note that some film audiences (unfortunately, which audiences were not exactly specified) found this line of conversation unsuitable for children so young, but Burney dissects the footage as she watches. She observes that Coates is only taking threads of discussion the children bring up. And she notices how he places his hands on the heads of his students who have their hands up. Though he doesn’t call on them right away, Burney sees the simple touch as nurturing, acknowledging his students’ presence and showing that he appreciates their participation.
I Am a Promise is full of such moments, when teachers and parents look after students. As just one instance, a gifted student named Nadia is struggling. Her parents are crack addicts and, at the age of eight, she moved in with a neighbor whom she claimed was her grandfather. When the filmmakers interview the “grandfather,” they make a shocking discovery. He isn’t related to her at all, but instead, he took her in like an “alley cat” and cared for her for the two years.
Lacking the bias that makes Michael Moore’s movies so popular (and controversial), the Raymonds’ film is more satisfying. It quietly celebrates the effects of a compassionate school staff and involved community in the lives of young students. Rather than portraying the teachers and staff as superhumans, the documentary displays moments of frustration and exasperation. And in so doing, I Am a Promise makes a case for inner-city school funding, as well as the potential of children the system has written off. As the film ends with the graduation of the oldest class moving on to junior high, the viewer hopes that wherever they go, they will find mentors as strong and supportive as the staff at Stanton Elementary.