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I AM A PROMISE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Susan Raymond
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Docurama
Features:  Commentary, Filmmaker Bios
Length:  90 Minutes
Release Date:  February 22, 2005

"I am a promise, I am a possibility!"

Film ***

Stanton Elementary School could be a public school like any other at first glance.  But located in the inner city of North Philadelphia, the mostly poor 6 to 10 year old kids walk to school past crack houses and through areas infested with crime.  Police sirens are a normal sound.  Parents worry when their kid is a little late coming home from school that the worst has happened.

In 1993, filmmakers Susan and Alan Raymond took their cameras inside the school for one year to explore what life and learning was like for these children.  The resulting documentary I Am a Promise won the Oscar that year for opening America's eyes to the problems of inner city schooling.

The kids are plentiful; the teachers far less so.  In one scene, an ex-Marine coach with a bullhorn tries to keep about four classes of students together at one time.  He's not quite up to the challenge. 

But principal Deanna Burney seems hopeful through it all.  She knows that education is the kids' only way out of a potentially bleak life, and takes great pains to give each of her students the attention they need.  It's frequently an uphill struggle.

Many of the boys and girls come from single parent homes.  A lot of them have one or more parents with a drug problem.  Some are undisciplined and belligerent; others more focused and determined.  Some lash out in frustration because they can't quite get the hang of what's expected of them.  They live in a part of the city where more students will drop out of school than graduate, and Mrs. Burney doesn't want to see them become a part of the litter of humanity that ends up in jail or worse.

The short amount of time doesn't let us get as close to the kids as we would like.  A couple are singled out for points of interest:  a boy named Cornelius who gets Ritalin doled out to him by the school nurse to curb his temper, a girl named Nadia who shows signs of becoming a writer...there's also a boy who gets up, gets ready and comes to school every morning while it's still dark because his parents can't help him and he can't tell time, and another one who gets a gold star certificate for listening to a library reading but can't even read what's written on his award.

Because of their home lives, many of the children simply lack the discipline to focus in school.  And when the kids outnumber the teachers in such gross inequality, the educators can't make up for all of it.  And somewhere in front of these kids, a great door is starting to close that they aren't even aware of.

The problems are easily identifiable...the solutions obviously less so.  You can't really teach those who haven't been primed to learn.  More money could bring in more teachers, but even that doesn't get at the root of the problem.  School vouchers would get kids like these out from failing inner city schools, but wouldn't prepare them to handle a different learning environment any better.  Parental involvement is an absolute must in education, but what can you do when the parents are, in many of these cases, even less equipped to handle life than the kids themselves?

Mrs. Burney stresses to her students that they are all talented and gifted, and that she will not let them fail.  But in the end, we learn that she too gave up and resigned her position at the school.  It was a sad final note, but an understandable one.   The problem is too big for one person to bear alone.

Who knows where these kids are 12 years after the fact?  A follow-up documentary would probably be nigh impossible.  One can only hope that some of them understood and appreciated what Mrs. Burney tried to tell them and ended up rising above their circumstances rather than quietly and sadly blending into them.

Video **

This DVD presentation looks about as good as you would expect for a low budget on-the-fly project.  The colors of the school are frequently quite vibrant in daylight, but darker scenes exhibit some unavoidable grain.  There's no real problem with clarity, mind you...you can always tell who and what you're looking at.

Audio **

The simple stereo mix is perfectly adequate...spoken words are the mainstay here, and they come through quite nicely.  Which is good, because the disc has no subtitle feature.

Features **

The disc boasts a commentary with filmmakers Susan and Alan Raymond along with Deanna Burney, who reflect back on that 1993 year as they plunged headfirst into a project with no idea how it might turn out.  There is also a bio on the Raymonds, plus some Docurama trailers.

Summary:

I Am a Promise is not a picture of false hope or pretenses, but a very bare and factual picture of what our kids in the inner city are experiencing in and around public schools.  These kids are our future, so whatever you do, don't regard them with a distant eye.  Look closely and with sober concern.

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