According to Washington Metropolitan High School (DC Met) Principal Tanishia Williams Minor, she is doing what she was meant to do for a living–helping young people who are often forgotten and mistreated within Washington, D.C.’s public education system. Minor’s journey is tough, but it leaves her fulfilled. When you watch her in this new documentary, you might leave feeling fulfilled as well.
Next week, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) premieres a four-hour documentary called “180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School.” “American” is the key word used in the title because of the country’s failing public education system and its rank in science and math among developed nations (as a clip of a speech by President Barack Obama shows during the documentary’s opening credits).
DC Met, an alternative high school in the D.C. area, is the setting for the film and maybe the most significant choice for a school-based documentary. While films like “Waiting for Superman” and “Principal’s Story” talk about the average public school problems, “180 Days” focuses on a school that’s usually seen as the final stop before a young person resorts to a life where prison or death awaits them.
With her students coming from neighborhoods that can only be described as rough, Minor knows what she’s up against when she comes to school every day. But it doesn’t stop her. Speaking to the AmNews from her school (after just breaking up a fight), Minor talked about her mission, the documentary and her thoughts on former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Minor also talked about the difficulties she faces in dealing with her students and in recognizing the type of job she has to do.
“It’s super tough and, of course, every student is different,” said Minor. “It’s funny because I never really paid attention to it until the documentary and I was asked so many questions. It’s our consistency in saying the same thing that got our kids to come around.”
But getting her students to come around isn’t always an easy task. For starters, the children are inundated with many negative messages from their neighborhoods, their families or their peers. Also, the city’s education department is constantly looking for numbers-based improvement. The AmNews asked if it makes Minor feel like it’s a constant race against the clock.
“It is a constant race against the clock, but I don’t know if it’s a constant race against the city’s clock or a constant race against the kids’ clock,” said Minor. “We know that at any given moment, any of our kids might wake up and say that they’re not going to school that day. We got the kids to recognize their potential and report the information as it was.”
In a school not known for high attendance rates, Minor and her staff managed to raise her school’s student attendance to the upper 80s percentage-wise. But she feels like the city’s education staff isn’t always appreciative of her efforts. “What I heard was that ‘You need to get this down to 3 percent,’” she said.
While Minor’s former boss, Rhee, has been a lightning rod for controversy over the past several years, you won’t find Minor saying a bad word about her. Despite the articles and the investigative reports, Minor felt like Rhee actually cared about her job, even though she was a tough boss.
“The conversations we had were real conversations,” said Minor. “While she was very busy, she was able to hear logic. There was a greater sense of responsibility. She had a concept of this and paid greater attention to detail. At the end of the day, you need to pay attention,” said Minor.
“180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School” premiers on PBS in two parts on March 25 and March 26 from 9 to 11 p.m.