America’s ‘Best Kept Secret’: Special Needs Teaching

“Rahamid has a fear of plants,” explains his teacher, Janet Mino. “We’re trying to desensitize him. Outside, he won’t go by the trees.” She holds a potted plant in front of Rahamid, asking whether he might take it from her and put it back on the classroom shelf where she found it. “Ouch!” he murmurs. Mino presses on. “You want to put it back for me or no?” she asks. No. “You want me to do it?” Yes. “Okay, I’ll do it.”

Rahamid has been able to say what he wants, and that’s the point for Janet, rather than the fear of plants. Mino seeks engagement and communication, asking for each student, “How to take care of yourself, how to express yourself or just get some type of language out of you?” Throughout the documentary Best Kept Secret — opening in theaters 6 September and airing on PBS on the 23rd — Mino patiently coaxes just such self-expression from her students at John F. Kennedy High School in Newark. These students have a range of special needs, met by JFK staff members with attention to detail, innovative strategies, and remarkable dedication. As Mino puts it, laughing through her visible exhaustion, “I should get paid overtime, always… weekends, I’m always thinking about them.”

So far, so familiar: during its first moments, Best Kept Secret looks like another documentary about great work at a great school. But Samantha Buck’s film takes a next step, looking at what happens after school. Specifically, it shows what’s happening as, for the first time in her 20 years of working with autistic spectrum children, Mino’s entire class is graduating.

Best Kept Secret follows this transition in 2011, as it affects Mino and several of her students. Outside of school, they won’t have the same sort of attention or time devoted to them, and so, in the months before graduation, she sets to work with parents, guardians, and area agencies in hopes of finding situations for each graduate. As Mino confronts the difficulty of finding ways for each student to feel as stimulated and special as he — and they are all hes in this film — can feel at JFK. Social worker Cynthia Pullen Thompson cautions Mino that their lives are about to change radically, as the state now sees them not as students but as consumers (“Instead of a person,” interjects Mino). “That’s the language they use, the agencies,” underlines Thompson, language designating new costs and payments to be made.

As Mino notes, her students are all “inner city,” which is to say, poor. Their parents and guardians can’t afford the private services of a place like the West Orange’s WAE (Wellness, Arts & Enrichment) Center, a nonprofit alternative learning center where she sees students in a group situation, painting, sharing their work, encouraging each other, and engaged in the kind of self-expression she values. But even as a counselor assures Mino that “The only criteria is [sic] that you like to be here,” either the state or families have to cover costs. More often, the options for Mino’s graduates are “work-oriented,” janitorial activities or piecework they take on as individuals, where supervisors don’t have time or training to attend to what Thompson calls “social recreation,” and what Mino calls “life.”

Mino’s efforts to find rewarding situations for her graduates seem heroic in the film, and you’re invited to share in her frustrations, as caretakers and children are left with non-choices. Individual stories speak to broader constraints: Erik is thrilled to see his mother when she can make it to see him, as they’ve been separated owing in part to her addiction; Quran’s father admits that it was difficult for “accept him for him being who he is,” but still, he wants to have him tested, despite Mino’s advice against such standardized assessments (Bradley, Quran’s dad, sighs when he learns the results, which suggest his son has “regressed [in] some of the things that I know that he’s able to do”). Another graduate, Erik, finds brief joy in the job he’s “always wanted,” cleaning up once a week at a Burger King, but an epigraph at film’s end reveals that when his family is unable to secure a regular monitor for him, he loses the position.

Mino sees that such disappointments have more to do with her graduates’ economic situations than with their abilities, or their many achievements at JFK, a point she makes during a public panel discussion with Senator Robert Menendez. But identifying that particular difficulty doesn’t begin to improve it, as funding remains largely unavailable. That’s not to say Best Kept Secret focuses on the disappointments, or that it doesn’t return, in its final moments, to Mino’s classroom. Here you see that she has a new class of energetic students who are learning to express what they want.

RATING 8 / 10