On HBO’s “Douglas High”

Have you ever heard someone say, “We’re creating a permanent underclass?” That phrase stuck out to me in an argument between Dr. Frank Napier and Joe Clark in the film “Lean on Me” (two of my favorite actors Robert Guillaume and Morgan Freeman in one of my all time favorite scenes in movie history). It showed the clash of state officials’ need for quantitative evidence of academic improvement versus the result of passing children through high school without the basic skills to read and write.

We’re creating a permanent underclass and there are no clear solutions.

Alan and Susan Raymond are award-winning filmmakers who spent a year shooting “Hard times at Douglas High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card”, providing a vivid look into the problems of our nations public schools. Fredrick Douglas High School, located in Baltimore Maryland, is the 2nd oldest public school in our country. It was founded primarily for African Americans and boasts Cab Calloway and Thurgood Marshall among its alumni. The fact that Thurgood Marshall, who won the historic case Brown vs. Board of Education and built his reputation in the NAACP fighting legal battles for the rights to desegregate and equal education, would find his alma mater in a state of such complete dysfunction is devastating.

Some of the most startling facts are as follows: the majority of students are poor, from broken homes, have parents who are disinterested or absent. The freshman class numbers between 300 to 500 students and more than 50% will drop out. Classes are overcrowded and there aren’t enough books for every student. Only one student had an SAT score over 1000, the lowest was 440. Absenteeism was chronic at all grade levels. There were 9th graders on a 3rd grade reading level, 12th graders on a 5th grade reading level and one 10th grader who couldn’t read at all. Barely 10% passed English, 1% passed Algebra. Teachers were falling asleep in staff meetings. Student discipline problems were out of control. One horrific example was a young boy filmed literally trying to knockout five girls in a hallway brawl.

Students were allowed to “negotiate” in order to graduate. Teachers were forced to weigh the merits of failing a child versus the perceived marginal benefit gained by another year of the same thing.

In an officially graduating class of 132 students, that number rose to 200 after bargaining, and only 50 were going to college!

This is just the tip of the iceberg on the academic side. On a social side, the basketball team which was vying for a state championship lost a playoff game on controversial calls from the referees. Afterwards, a young man vented “that’s why all these black boys selling drugs.” I was stunned that the comment went unchecked by any adult. Then the coach followed up by saying “They (expletive) us. They got us. They went up in us deep.” WHAT? I’ve been on lots of teams and been around all kinds of coaches and “colorful” language. I was stunned by that. He said that knowing he was ON CAMERA! What are kind of imagery and message are you giving these young men?

In the end, I wish I could say I knew what to do. If you don’t give the schools more money and resources, the kids simply have no chance. On the other hand, if an entire days lesson is to write a 1 page outline and most of the students can’t finish or don’t try, what’s the teacher to do? When the child fails, do we blame the teacher, the parent or the child?

This is an amazing documentary that left me wondering how to save our children from becoming a permanent underclass.

Darryl Bell is an actor and Chicago native, best known for his roles in classic TV series “A Different World” and Spike Lee’s “School Daze.” His unique television commentary is exclusive to Urban Thought Collective.

Email This Post Email This Post

Leave a Comment


July 10th, 2008 at 12:03 am Red Razor says:

#1 :)

July 10th, 2008 at 12:12 am Red Razor says:

Just set the Tivo.

July 10th, 2008 at 12:23 am SweetSis says:

Is this old or playing on HBO now?

July 10th, 2008 at 12:28 am Binta Rohan says:

I saw this! It was quite breathtaking in its stark truth and the beauty of our youth. Glad to see that you discuss it here Darryl. I hope some poeple check it out.

July 10th, 2008 at 1:18 am young clean bastard says:

sounds like my school in the dee, no joke.

July 10th, 2008 at 1:48 am chica22 says:

Thanks for the heads up, I’m going to check it out.

July 10th, 2008 at 8:16 am superjonsey1 says:

This is deep. We wonder why our economy is where it is, unemployment is up and the middle class is disappearing. We are putting the future into the hands of children that are uneducated and still the first budget cuts that happen are in our public school system. Crazy!

July 10th, 2008 at 9:23 am highalove says:

A sad shame - this war is taking even more money from our children’s schools

July 10th, 2008 at 9:50 am Mr Melody says:

I will definitely have to tivo this even though I know we have seen this horrible state of affairs B4

July 10th, 2008 at 10:34 am thelma says:


July 10th, 2008 at 11:19 am culturepop says:

These are some mean streets and the schools are only a reflection of what these kids learn in their house

July 10th, 2008 at 12:06 pm heatmizer says:

Why do we always fail our kids

July 10th, 2008 at 1:56 pm pmatters says:

Sounds like a lot of schools I have seen on the Jersey shore. I have got to see this.

July 10th, 2008 at 1:57 pm Byron Black says:

Let’s See If This Is As Highly Rated In African-American Households As I Love New York Part 9.

July 10th, 2008 at 3:58 pm Nation Builder says:

I’ve seen sooo many kids pushed through school its a crime

July 10th, 2008 at 6:13 pm teradise says:

Must Tivo!

July 10th, 2008 at 7:18 pm Ellene Miles says:

This is a must see. Sometimes you can’t turn away from something so horrible. We all should get a first hand education on just how bad things are for the schools and minority kids especially.

July 11th, 2008 at 3:24 am UncleD says:

Darryl Bell, I can’t tell if you’re saying its amazing in an uplifting way or because it is well-made. Everything you’ve described is jawdroppingly bad so it’s worth seeing because it exposes the ngetaive that we need to know or because there is an uplifting ending? maybe just from education? To educate ourselves? Let me know if you are recommending it or not. If so, I will look into it. If not, those stats are enough to paint the grim picture we all need to be reminded of.

July 11th, 2008 at 4:09 am Darryl M. Bell says:

UncleD, I am recommending it highly. I say it’s amazing in terms of the film makers having done an excellent job providing a look into a situation so horrible.

July 11th, 2008 at 8:28 am ain'tmad says:

I have seen the Douglas High documentary on HBO and while people should take a moment to view it when convenient, for me it is more than a documentary to be tivo’d and viewed. Everyday, I have exposure to children of the so-called underclass because they live in my neighborhood. Everyday, I wonder what seminal event will spark a positive change so that no child is truly left behind. I don’t reckon that the seminal change will come as a result of a government program.

July 11th, 2008 at 7:31 pm celebutante says:

Y am eye not even supprise

July 11th, 2008 at 9:12 pm lolalove says:

my school in crown heights was a crap hole and its a wonder i made it out alive - my heart goes out to these kids

July 11th, 2008 at 9:20 pm buttabrown says:

Bargaining to graduate?? WTF???

July 14th, 2008 at 6:12 pm Clotel says:

I saw this and it truly broke my heart to see so many of our children jammed into classrooms, while barely knowing how to read or do simple math problems.

The disciplinary issue is insane but not surprising as many of my friends who are former teachers have left due to this horrific problem. My boyfriend is a teacher and he is ready to go as well and I am begging him to hold on as there are not many black MALE teachers around.

Back to School nite was a complete joke with a dismal attendance and yet when prom arrived, it was a PACKED house.

This is a powerful special that should be seen by all - we have to save our children but then again, they have to want to be saved.

I am SHOCKED at the number of children and teeens who believe that school is for nerds as I heard this often in the special.

Where are we headed as a society ???????

July 15th, 2008 at 7:55 pm Joseph Bourelly says:

Hey Darryl. This was a great documentary. I don’t know if throwing more money or resources at this problem is the answer though. From what I saw in this film, many of these kids are so highly dysfunctional that it may not help. Obviously, all children have a right to an education in this country, but the bad seeds need to be weeded out, so those who are at school to learn have an opportunity to do so in a peaceful, non-disruptive environment.