Here’s a documentary that does what I expect a documentary to do — show me something I would not see in my everyday life.
It’s the story of three seniors, members of a step dance team and of the first graduating class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a public charter school with an African American student body.
The school aims to graduate seniors ready to attend and graduate from college. The students mostly come from families who have not gone to college, and they mostly are being raised by their mothers.
The broader story is punctuated by step team practices and events. The students in the group reinforce each other and take pleasure in their efforts. They lose a Baltimore step competition and then set their sights much higher, on a Maryland-Delaware-D.C. regional competition late in the school year. They practice and practice and practice.
One of the featured girls is Tayla, the only child of a mother who works as a corrections officer. Tayla’s mom is fiercely devoted to her daughter and to the step team — too devoted for Tayla’s liking. The mom says, “Don’t have no out-of-wedlock baby like me!” at one point, and Tayla rolls her eyes.
Cori describes her mom as “a magic wand in human form,” and recalls a time when “we were homeless, and I didn’t even know it.” Cori is a gifted student with many siblings, and she will need a full scholarship to attend her top college choice. What she craves most is “stability.”
Blessin has a mother who has ongoing problems with depression and who is unreliable. Blessin can remember times when the family refrigerator was empty. Her grade-point average is terrible, and she missed 53 days of school in her junior year. But she has potential — in the first grading period of her senior year, she makes the honor roll. She also is an enthusiastic leader in the step group.
The school year starts a few months after Freddy Gray’s death in the back of a police van, an event that shook Baltimore. The step team visits the Gray memorial, and their advisor tells them, “As young black women, it could have been us.” She also says, “As African American women, we are considered the bottom of the barrel.”
If these don’t sound like upbeat messages, well, the women who run the school are absolutely devoted to their students — encouraging and steadfast. They understand each girl as an individual and work with each one personally. The college counselor and principal just never give up. Their support and commitment yield results.
These are students whose prospects almost certainly would be less bright if they spent grades six through 12 in traditional Baltimore public schools. What is satisfying about the film is watching the students grow, succeed and enjoy their senior year.
I saw this movie in an empty theater. I doubt it will gather a major audience. Those who do see it probably will arrive already believing that we need more schools like the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.
Still, the story is moving. Why not give it a look?