For the majority of her adult life, Kelly Amis has been dedicated to making a positive impact on America's troubled public education system. She was among the first crop of college graduates to become a Teach for America teacher in 1990, has worked in education reform and policy, and recently made an eye-opening short film series called TEACHED. The films examine our nation's race-based "achievement gap" by taking you into the communities in Los Angeles where its effects are most severe.
This week, Kelly premiered two of her short films to the Los Angeles education community. The film, The Path to Prison, particularly struck a cord. It tells the story of Jerone, a young man in South Central, Los Angeles who went from student to gang member, and on to prison at 17 years old. Jerone talks candidly about not being able to read and being passed from one grade to the next. He said he didn't have many teachers who believed in him. At the time when the film was shot, Jerone was getting by working at a car wash.
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The film shoot wasn't the first time Kelly had encountered Jerone. When she was a 21-year-old Teach for America teacher, she was sent to teach in a public elementary school in South Central. Kelly taught there during the time of the dangerous Los Angeles riots and for a short time, Jerone was put in her class. "I remember thinking when I was teaching these kids, especially these boys," Kelly says, "that they are being put on a trajectory to prison."
We can either educate them on the front end or there's another public institution waiting for them on the back end.
Twenty years later, Kelly was searching for former students to feature in her films and came across a poem published online that Jerone had written. He wrote it from a small cell in a Los Angeles County prison. Kelly went back to South Central to see Jerone after he got out, and also to reconnect with former students from Western Avenue Elementary. As she walked through the halls of the school, she says, "It was incredible to go back and see that it had not changed at all. In fact, some of the teachers who I thought shouldn't have been there 20 ago were still there." Decades of education reform, she says, completely missed this school.
In Los Angeles County, there were 27,380 kids who dropped out of school during the 2010-2011 school year. Dr. Howard Fuller, a former Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent who has become a national leader in the fight for education equality, said during his keynote speech at the premiere that "we can either educate them on the front end or there's another public institution waiting for them on the back end."
"On any given day, The New York Times reports, about one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention.
Kelly was saddened to say during our interview that the night before Jerone was scheduled to speak about the film a few months back, he was arrested for armed robbery. Under the three strikes law in California, Jerone will now be in prison for the next 40 years.
Kelly, Dr. Fuller, and the other panelists who spoke at the L.A. premiere of TEACHED, all were adamant that the school-to-prison pipeline needs to stop. We can no longer "relegate tens of thousands of kids to lives of crime, gang life, incarceration," Kelly says. Her hope is that her short film series will bring people together, inspire discussion and push necessary reform forward.
To purchase the TEACHED film series or schedule a screening click here.
Is there a film about education that has inspired you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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Jenny is the Education Editor at TakePart. She has been writing for TakePart since 2009 and previously worked in film and television development. She has taught English in Vietnam and tutors homeless children in Los Angeles. Email Jenny | @jennyinglee | TakePart.com