Madeline Rios watches students as they run through basketball drills. The gm floor is squeaky and the hoops have nets. “I love the kids from the neighborhood, they remind me of me when I was growing up,” says the counselor and social worker. “But when you congregate so many people in a small space with limited resources, you’re asking for trouble.”
This “small space” might describe a range of circumstances in the South Bronx. Residents’ lives are shaped by low expectations and nocuous pasts, by close walls at home and in school, by their limited mobility. But here, at the Bronx Center for Science & Mathematics, Rios and the principal Edward Tom hope to expand the space just a bit. The school’s first year, beginning in fall 2005, is chronicled in Whatever It Takes, a shortened form of Christopher Wong’s film, airing this month on PBS’ Independent Lens series. (That is, the film itself has been made “small” for this venue.)
Tom has high hopes for the school, part of New York City’s 2000 plan to reform education for students attending small schools in poor districts. The film opens as he starts his day at 5:30am, the camera panning the photos in the home he shares with his wife and three young children as he puts on his cufflinks (a closeup underlines this detail, a reminder of his previous career as an upscale executive who used to dress “like a million bucks”). Tom’s energy and intensity are clear enough as he greets uniformed students. At a first day assembly, he reminds his108 charges, “People that look like you and I, they’re gonna expect excuses from us. And we can’t give the world excuses.” The cut to an auditorium full of students who appear actually to be listening reminds you that this is indeed a first day.
This version of the film focuses on Tom and one ninth-grader, Sharifea Baskerville. Their paths cross occasionally during this hour, as her own ambition seems to match his, even as her trajectory veers off. Sharifea’s Her teachers agree that she’s bright and capable — that she should be hopeful about being accepted to a Dartmouth College summer program — but also that she’s too often sidetracked. The film doesn’t offer much detail, but an interview with Sharifea’s mother Linda indicates that her daughter’s distractions start at home, as she’s expected to look after younger siblings. Linda is determined that Sharifea will not suffer as she did. Her family, she says, was “wrapped up in drugs” and “my mom used to beat me a lot.” She gathers herself as she says, tearfully, “I don’t want [my kids] to be like me. I don’t want them to go down that road, ’cause it’s not a pretty road.”
That’s not to say Sharifea’s road hasn’t been hard. She recalls, “My father wasn’t really in the picture,” and her mother has been less than reliable. “Honestly,” she says, though her mother says they spent time at the park when she was little, “I don’t remember nothing about my childhood nothing before we got put into foster care.” Here she and her younger brother felt abandoned. “I felt like if she hadn’t did what she did, we wouldn’t be in the situation we were in.” Now Sharifea means to control at least some facets of her future, indicated in the documentary as she makes her way over sidewalks and hallways, routes to where else she needs to be.
When Sharifea’s grades begin to drop precipitously, teachers and Principal Tom worry together during a staff meeting, discussing when and how to intervene. Her ups and downs provide a kind of map for the school’s first year, where forward motion is occasionally interrupted by steps back. Tom and his staff spend time tracking down the student who wrote on a hallway wall (“Miss Baugh sucks”), a sign of disrespect and disorder that he brings to the attention of the student body. He stands before them, declaring the school is “out of control.” “You either did it or you know who did it,” he says sternly as they shift in their seats and look away. The film shows a next step, when he calls perpetrator’s mother. “Ms. Jackson, Ms. Jackson,” he starts and stops, patiently. The child’s suspension follows two offenses, he explains, pausing again. “All right, Ms. Jackson you need to do what you need to do.”
The film shows that Tom’s space is also small, at least physically, as hard as he works each day to expand it. And yet, even if confrontations with students and parents are to be expected, the successes are thrilling. During a visit with his own father, Ngor Loon Tom, the principal is reminded, “When you were in high school, you said you wanted to be a lawyer.” His dad shakes his head. “Being a teacher is the best, being an educator s noble. Being a lawyer is the worst.” Seated at the elder Tom’s kitchen table, father and son agree, Edward has made the right choice.