Back to School

By David Hill — September 01, 1994 17 min read

Frederick Wiseman, the acclaimed documentary filmmaker, is sitting in the basement boardroom of the Ford Foundation’s headquarters in midtown Manhattan. An elfin man with large ears and an unruly head of wiry hair, he is wearing an off-white double-breasted jacket, a bright-red knit tie, a maroon-and-white striped button-down shirt, and gray slacks. The clothes, along with a pair of reading glasses, give him the appearance of a college professor who’s all dressed up for a faculty cocktail party.

Although he is 64 years old, Wiseman seems to have a limitless amount of energy, no doubt a necessity for someone who has made one movie a year since 1967. The filmmaker has come to New York from his home in Cambridge, Mass., to meet with his benefactors at the Ford Foundation and to show a portion of his latest film, High School II, to about 25 of the city’s school reform leaders. The movie—a 220-minute portrait of Central Park East Secondary School, an alternative public high school in East Harlem—will be shown nationally on the Public Broadcasting Service on Wednesday, Sept. 7 (check local listings). It is, in short, a movie about a school that works.

As the title makes clear, this isn’t the first time that Wiseman has made a movie about a high school. In 1968, a year in which the nation appeared to be coming apart at the seams, Wiseman spent six weeks at Philadelphia’s Northeast High School shooting countless rolls of black-and-white film. A former law professor, Wiseman had created a stir the year before with his first film, Titicut Follies, a disturbing portrait of life behind the walls of the State Prison for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Mass. For the subject of his second movie, Wiseman deliberately chose a typical urban high school, one that was neither better nor worse than most schools in the country. The resulting 75-minute film, simply called High School, is a remarkable cinema verite account of an utterly mind-deadening institution, a school that is desperately trying to maintain its position of authority in the face of enormous social change.

A teacher patrols the hallways like a prison guard, curtly interrogating tardy students: “Where’re you going?” “You gotta pass?” “Let’s go!” A sex education instructor tells a group of girls, “You have learned by now as part of being human that you can’t have what you want when you want it.” Bored students try to stay awake while their lifeless English teacher reads “Casey at the Bat” out loud. The school’s dean of discipline, a bully with a crew cut, berates those unlucky souls who have been dispatched to his cinder-block office. “Turn around, pal!” he tells one boy. “Don’t ‘sir’ me! . . . Don’t give me that ‘Yes, sir’ business!” He tells another, “When you’re being addressed by someone older than you are or in a seat of authority, it’s your job to respect and listen.”

Finally, about an hour into the movie, we see a student who has somehow managed to resist the school’s best efforts. And, ironically, he’s on the verge of flunking out. A budding rebel with longish hair and round sunglasses, the student is shown discussing Northeast High with some of the school’s other malcontents. “The policy of Northeast is to avoid controversy completely,” he says. “This school is miserable. It’s cloistered, it’s secluded, it’s completely sheltered from everything that’s going on in the world, and I think that’s wrong, and it has to be changed. And I think that’s our purpose here.”

Like all of Wiseman’s films, High School has no narration, and none of its footage was obtained surreptitiously. So when it was first shown in Philadelphia, most of Northeast High’s teachers and administrators saw the movie as an accurate depiction of what they believed to be a “good school.” Reviewers, however, saw it as a savage indictment of a bankrupt institution. “High School,” Peter Janssen of Newsweek wrote, “shows no stretching of minds. It does show the overwhelming dreariness of administrators and teachers who confuse learning with discipline. The school somehow takes warm, breathing teenagers and tries to turn them into 40-year-old eunuchs.”

When such reviews began appearing, many of the school’s faculty members felt betrayed by the filmmaker. But some students had the opposite reaction: They printed up T-shirts that said, “Fred Wiseman Was Right.”

Since High School, Wiseman has made more than 20 documentary films, all of which have been shown on PBS. Their titles get right to the point: Hospital (1969), about the day-to-day activities of a large medical center in New York City; Welfare (1975), which depicts the Kafkaesque world of an urban welfare office; Meat (1976), about the process through which cattle and sheep become consumer products; The Store (1983), an inside look at the flagship Neiman-Marcus store in Dallas; Blind, Deaf, Adjustment and Work, and Multi-Handicapped (1986), four films about the students and staff of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind; Aspen (1991), about the inhabitants of the Colorado resort town. His next work, about the American Ballet Theatre, will be called—appropriately enough—Ballet.

Wiseman has long depended on a number of organizations and foundations—including New York’s WNET-TV, the British Broadcasting Corp., the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities—to support his work. For 25 years, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS have been constant sources, having provided the filmmaker with about 20 percent of the funds necessary to make his movies. But coming up with the remainder has become increasingly more difficult, particularly since each movie now costs about $500,000 to produce, a fivefold increase since he first started making them. (For High School II, the Ford Foundation contributed $160,106, about half of which will be used to produce an accompanying study guide. Two other philanthropies—the Aaron Diamond Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation—also provided funding.)

Wiseman’s films are about the routine, the mundane, the everyday. People go about their work (or their play) seemingly oblivious to the camera that’s capturing them, a tribute to Wiseman’s ability to “disappear” while he works. There are no sound bites, no intrusive narrator, no manipulative music, no fancy graphics. Scenes go on for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, an eternity by television news standards. (Many of his films are two hours or less, but Near Death, about the intensive care unit at a Boston Hospital, is nearly six hours long.) Yet Wiseman doesn’t merely record reality; he carefully edits his raw footage until the finished product becomes an exploration into the moral and spiritual life of his chosen subject. The New Yorker has called his films “a vast nonfiction novel about our social institutions.”

As he waits for today’s sneak preview to begin, Wiseman explains why he decided to make another movie about high school. “I wanted to repeat one subject in the series I’ve been doing on institutions,” he says, “but I didn’t want to go back to the same place. And I hadn’t made a film about schools in a black or Hispanic neighborhood. I chose to repeat the subject of high school because it’s such a common experience.”

Wiseman had already visited several high schools when he was introduced to Deborah Meier, co-director of Central Park East Secondary School, at a meeting of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellows in Chicago. (Both Wiseman and Meier are recipients of the philanthropy’s highly coveted “genius” awards; the lucky winners each receive several hundred thousand dollars to use as they see fit.) “I was telling her about the project,” he says, “and she told me in the course of our conversation that she was the principal of a school in Spanish Harlem. And I said, ‘Can I come visit the school?’ And she said, ‘Sure.’”

After seeing Central Park East, Wiseman decided that it was “the ideal place” to document on film. “It was a school that was working,” he says. “And it seemed to me a lot more interesting to make a movie about a school that was working than to yet make another movie about a place that was falling apart. There didn’t seem to be any news bulletins in that. I thought it would be both more interesting and more complicated to look at a school like Central Park East, where 90 percent of the graduates go on to four-year colleges.”

Wiseman was attracted to the school precisely because it doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of an inner-city high school. “There are no metal detectors,” he says. “There are no cops. There’s a very low dropout rate. Drugs and violence aren’t problems. So I was curious to get some sense of why it was working the way it was.”

Getting permission to film at the school was another matter. Although Central Park East has been visited by countless journalists and educators since the school opened in 1985, Meier and Paul Schwarz, the school’s other co-director, weren’t thrilled about the idea of having Wiseman following them around with a camera for six weeks. Seeing High School didn’t help matters. “It made me very leery about letting him come to the school,” says Schwarz, a bearlike man with a large drooping mustache. “It’s like if 60 Minutes calls and says, ‘Can we look at your books?’” The co-directors turned the filmmaker down.

Wiseman, however, didn’t give up so easily. He asked if he could make another pitch. “We had him come in and spend a long time at the school,” Schwarz says. Wiseman met with faculty members, students, and parents. He promised to turn off his camera any time someone objected to being filmed. Eventually, a trust was established. “We believed him,” Schwarz continues. “He said he wanted to make a film that would give some hope to people about what a school can be like today, and I think he did it, for the most part.”

Later, Wiseman realized that the process he had gone through in order to get permission to make his movie was characteristic of how Central Park East operates. “It was a decision that was taken democratically,” he says, “and all the various constituents of the school had to be consulted. I learned a lot about how the school works.”

On March 30, 1992, Wiseman, his cinematographer John Davey, and an assistant began filming at the school. Using a hand-held camera and a portable tape recorder, Wiseman and his crew would work from 7:45 each morning and stay until 4:30 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon, five days a week. His technique is deceptively simple: “You hang around, and you shoot a lot of film.” In this case, Wiseman shot about 105 hours of color film, of which only 3 percent would make the final cut. (Typically, Wiseman spends six or seven months editing his films.)

“I didn’t really have any preconceived ideas in terms of themes,” he says, “except that I was interested in trying to discover how this school worked. But I systematically set out to visit as many different classrooms as I could. . . A lot of this kind of filmmaking is really dependent upon following your instinct and being lucky. And learning how to press your luck, so to speak, by roaming around and taking the risk of shooting even though you don’t know what the results are going to be.”

“He followed me around an awful lot,” says Schwarz, who appears in a number of scenes in High School II. “I dreamt about him one night. I said, ‘Enough Fred! You gotta give me a day off!’” When he saw the film, however, Schwarz realized that Wiseman’s persistence had paid off. “It’s very much like what my life is like every day,” he says. “It’s very realistic, although I think some of the lightness and some of the pleasure that we all get from our work doesn’t come through. But what comes through most clearly is how the school breaks the stereotype of who these young African-American and Latino males and females are. They’re smart, caring kids.”

Like High School, High School II begins with an exterior shot of the school, but the difference is striking. Northeast High, a massive brick building with a huge smokestack, looks like a factory. Central Park East, with its multi-colored, hand-painted front doors, looks inviting, even nurturing—despite the security guard standing watch.

Much has been written about the school and its founder, Deborah Meier. A former elementary school teacher who believed strongly in the pedagogical value of open classrooms, Meier was given the chance to create her own elementary school in 1974. The result was Central Park East, originally housed on several floors of P.S. 171, an ancient elementary school in East Harlem. Teachers at the school were given a great deal of freedom in deciding what and how they wanted to teach, and parents were required to visit the school with their children in order to gain admission.

“One of our primary reasons for starting the school,” Meier has said, “was our personal desire for greater autonomy as teachers. We spoke a lot about democracy, but we were also just plain sick and tired of having to negotiate with others, worry about rules and regulations, and so on. We all came together with our own visions—some collective and some individual—of what teaching could be like if only we had control. Ours was to be a teacher-run school.”

Meier’s school caught on; eventually, she opened two spinoffs, Central Park East II and River East School. Encouraged by the success of the elementary schools, Meier founded Central Park East Secondary School in the fall of 1985 with 80 7th graders. Now, 450 multiracial students in grades 7-12 attend the school, which is part of New York City’s innovative District 4. The high school’s curriculum is driven by five “habits of mind,” which Schwarz characterizes as “a way of seeing things in their complexity.” They are outlined in the school’s information pamphlet:

• From whose viewpoint are we seeing or reading or hearing? From what angle or perspective?

• How do we know what we know? What’s the evidence and how reliable is it?

• How are things, events, or people connected to each other? What is the cause and what is the effect? How do they ‘fit’ together?

• What if . . .? Could things be otherwise? What are or were the alternatives? Supposing.

• So what? What does it matter? What does it all mean? Who cares?

Clearly, such questions are meant to encourage students to think critically about their subjects, to grapple with difficult issues, to talk about things. And High School II captures that process in all its messy, democratic glory. Rarely do we see teachers standing in front of the classroom lecturing students. Instead, they lead discussion groups, ask a lot of questions, and try to get their students to discover answers and solutions on their own. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. As Schwarz puts it, “It’s a high school that works best for those people who really want to be here.” (Because Central Park East is a school of choice, theoretically all students have made a conscious decision to attend.)

Much of High School II takes place outside the classroom. “I wanted to cover everything that I knew was going on in the school,” Wiseman says. “And I knew that it was important, from the days when I visited the school, to hang around the main office. It was sort of the nerve center of the school. So just by hanging around there, you could pick up all kinds of interesting things.”

One day, Wiseman happened to notice a baby carriage outside Deborah Meier’s office. He learned that a 15-year-old student, along with her mother and brother, was meeting with Meier, Schwarz, and several other faculty members. Wiseman asked for—and received—permission to film the conference. The result is one of the movie’s most touching scenes. We see Meier, a wise soul with gray hair and a warm smile, giving the girl and her family an honest evaluation of the situation. “It’s very hard to go back to school when you have a little baby,” she says. “I mean, there are a lot of complications in your life, right? You don’t know how much sleep you’re going to get, how you’re going to study on the side.” The mother says she intends to take care of the baby while her daughter goes to school. Meier is encouraging but at the same time realistic. “I would love for it to be able to work out,” she says.

In another scene, English teachers grapple with questions of standards. One teacher tells her colleagues that she’s looked at the Advanced Placement English test and concluded that “most of [our students] could never do this exam” because it contains basic terms and concepts that simply aren’t being taught at Central Park East. Later, she expresses concern that the students won’t be prepared when they get to college. “We want to change the world,” she says, “but we also have to prepare the kids to live in the world at the same time.”

The issue of “changing the world” comes up at another meeting, when Meier tells faculty members that there’s a fine line between urging students to become politically involved and pushing a particular political agenda down their throats. “If we think our educational approach,” she says, “is good pedagogically in the classroom—that is, to have various viewpoints, to have arguments, to get kids to do some investigation—then it seems to me our way of getting kids to be politically active should be similar.”

Central Park East is clearly more than just a school; it aspires to be a community, a place where the traditional boundaries that typically separate students from teachers have been blurred. At best, this creates a warm atmosphere where real learning can take place; at worst, it fosters a climate in which well-intentioned teachers seem reluctant to “get tough” with students.

There’s a long scene in High School II in which two older students attempt to mediate a dispute between two younger students who have been caught fighting with one another. A teacher oversees the process, which the school apparently uses for such incidents. The idea seems to be that if the two students talk about their differences with each other, the problem will be resolved. But the result is a sort of “I’m OK, you’re OK” encounter session. After much discussion, the teacher turns to the troublemakers and asks, “How’re you feeling?” to which they both reply, “Fine.” Everyone smiles as the conference comes to an end. You can’t help but think that the boys are getting off easy. (At least the scene shows how far we’ve come from the brute authoritarianism of Northeast High’s dean of discipline. But is there a happy medium?)

Wiseman had hoped that PBS would air High School and High School II back to back, followed by an hour-long discussion, but the network declined. “It strikes me that they’re missing a really good opportunity to get a debate going,” he says. When you look at both movies, he says, “you see how the schools are dealing with the same kinds of problems in such different ways, whether it’s discipline, sex education, or teaching. There are all kinds of parallels.”

While Wiseman was filming at Northeast High, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tenn. “The only discussion at the school at the time,” he says, “was some talk on the student council as to whether to send fruit or flowers to Mrs. King.”

By contrast, while the filmmaker was at Central Park East, the not-guilty verdict in the Rodney King case was announced, and the reaction couldn’t have been more different. In High School II, we see teachers asking their students to write essays about their reactions to the decision and ensuing riots. We see angry students debating whether to lead a march on City Hall. We see, in effect, a school trying to deal with a controversial issue rather than sweep it under the carpet. If the policy of Northeast High in 1968 was, as the rebellious student put it, “to avoid controversy completely,” the policy of Central Park East seems to be to embrace controversy.

When High School II premiered in July at New York’s Film Forum theater (where it was shown with High School), New York Times film reviewer Caryn James wrote: “The student-friendly Central Park East may be the school many of us wish we had gone to, but the setting of the original High School, with its scenes of rigid authoritarianism, may be closer to the average even now.”

Wiseman agrees: “One of the most amazing things about the first High School movie is how common the experience of that high school is—and I say is as opposed to was. Because I’ve now met people who graduated from high school anywhere from the 1920s up to 1993 who tell me that that’s like their high school. Which I find amazing, if not appalling.”

Paul Schwarz worries that many people will watch High School II and come to the conclusion that Central Park East Secondary School is an exceptional school—but one that can’t be easily replicated. “They’ll say, ‘Yeah, but I can’t do that here.’ ‘Yeah, but we can’t do that because we don’t have x, y, and z.’ “

Which would be unfortunate. Because High School II gives us a glimpse of what a successful inner-city school can look like. Central Park East Secondary School may not be perfect—what school is?—but, at a time when many people have all but given up on big-city public schools, it offers some much-needed hope and inspiration. And what more can we ask for?

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Back to School