Black Rock High School—The Canary in the Mine

My daughter Jeanette, who inherited my fondness for documentaries, just turned me onto The Bad Kids. Like Frederick Wiseman, The Bad Kids filmmakers don’t narrate their film, instead the participants’ unfiltered stories are told through video close-ups and dialogue.

If a documentary’s value hinges on whether it provokes fresh thinking, The Bad Kids succeeds. An alternative public school for struggling 11th and 12th graders in the SoCal desert, Black Rock students play a self paced game of credit retrieval, which appears to consist of reading textbook chapters and then answering some questions or writing essays. The principal has the perfect mindset for the place, she’s fearless and fierce in loving the kids unconditionally, but even she describes the curriculum as a game.

Among the lessons of BRHS. A principal and teaching staff, even if relentlessly optimistic, can’t compensate for a caring parent or two. Too much damage is done by the time they’re 17-18 years old. The students don’t struggle as a result of distracted parenting, they struggle because their parents have been an overwhelming negative presence in their lives. The parents abuse alcohol and drugs, they fight violently, they allow partners and extended family to harm their children, and they crush their dreams. What would be surprising is if the kids didn’t struggle with alcohol, drugs, and anger. And to top things off, the parents usually require them to move out at age 18 if they haven’t resorted, like Joey, to sleeping in bus stations already.

The premise of the principal and others seemed to be that everything will be much better if the students just retrieve enough credits to graduate high school. As if a high school diploma is going to undo the years of disastrous parenting and enable them to find a job that pays a livable wage. Globalization means there are far fewer manufacturing jobs. Increasingly, automation means even fewer jobs, especially for people lacking strong math and engineering backgrounds.

Among other things, Black Rock High School is a story about parents harming their children. I’m interested in the sequel. What will become of the “Bad Kids” in the next 5-10 years? Poor parenting has knocked them for a loop, but now they’re about to deal with the effects of globalization and automation and the widening gap between the rich and hopeful and poor and hopeless. High school diplomas or not, will they end up homeless, incarcerated?

Until the school district provides BR students meaningful vocational education and until WAY more of California’s public education resources go to strengthening their bodies and minds, the endearing students featured in the film and, in some cases their infant children, will likely add to the homeless or prison rolls.

Poverty has been done to these kids, it was not of their own doing; as a result, if we truly believe in equal opportunity in life, we have a responsibility to do more than hope a heroic principal can work miracles on them. Nearly all of them need the same two things, to distance themselves from their parent(s) and to find a safe and secure place to live. Which got me thinking about this young couple.

Granted, a Tiny House based curriculum, emphasizing math, sustainability, and a series of construction-based trades and skills, would take considerably more resources than California’s property taxes generate. Which means convincing super wealthy philanthropists to invest less in Ivy League students in order to invest instead in Black Rock High School’s much more vulnerable young people. Land, supportive zoning changes, infrastructure for the tiny homes, and materials are all needed. If Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and their peers could buck the trend laid out in “The Problem With Modern Philanthropy“, and form democratic partnerships with the poor young adults in this film, we’d have reduced drug addiction, violence, homelessness, and prison populations, meaning a safer, more secure, more vibrant democracy.

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