Most faculty members would rather eat slugs on a forlorn tropical island in the South China Sea or lock themselves in a house with nine annoying strangers than allow moviemakers to film them in their classrooms for an entire year. Yet, last summer, the staff of Highland Park High School in suburban Chicago extended just such a courtesy to filmmaker R.J. Cutler and his crew. Two thousand hours of footage later, the teachers are playing supporting roles in American High.
The 13-part documentary series, which premiered August 2, dips into the lives of 14 juniors and seniors at Highland Park High in an effort to understand what it’s like to come of age in America at the dawn of a new millennium. As the students submit to the familiar ebb and flow of the week—class, sports practice, downtime in the hallways, arguing with parents at home—a multitude of concerns weighs on their minds. For example, Sarah, in agony because “I’m only 17, and already I’ve found the love of my life,” worries that her boy-friend will forget her when he goes to college. Morgan, who has attention deficit disorder, struggles to stay focused, except when he’s teaching gymnastics to people with disabilities. Kaytee, whose friends laugh at her folk songs about humiliating incidents, quietly wonders if she’ll become a singer-songwriter after graduation.
Don’t be fooled by the rocking soundtrack and the jittery, MTV-esque camera work; American High is serious educational fare for Cutler, the producer of the Oscar-nominated political documentary The War Room. “I wanted to explore...that unique time when part of you is an adult and part of you is still a kid,” he says. “The critical issue was finding a community and finding a school that would, from the beginning, see the value of a project like this—and the pitfalls. It’s not an easy process for a school to go through.” His search included soliciting recommendations over e-mail and reading Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot’s book The Good High School, which mentions Highland Park High. Cutler visited, and he and the staff hit it off.
Ultimately, school and district officials found several reasons to say yes, according to assistant superintendent and project liaison Susan Benjamin. The assumption, she says, was that the film would give students an opportunity to learn about the documentary-making process, provide viewers with realistic images of teenagers, and enable Highland Park High teachers to get to know their students better.
The producers chose to focus on students, from various social groups, who had compelling stories to tell, says Cutler. They were enrolled in a video technology class taught by one of the show’s producers and given digital video cameras with which to record their unfiltered thoughts on their unfolding lives.
Once the 1999-2000 school year got underway, Cutler’s film crews, small groups using cameras without lights, did their best to blend in. Even so, they took some getting used to. Math teacher and football coach Bill Bodle recalls that when a crew began filming Kaytee, his daughter, “we’d sit down and have a family dinner—we hadn’t had one of those in five years! You know—'Please pass this, please pass that.’ But more and more we became used to it,” and normal, grab-a-sandwich eating resumed.
At first, English teacher Paul Swanson was reluctant. (To avoid conflict, the filmmakers always asked permission to film teachers and classrooms and didn’t shoot when faculty members felt uncomfortable.) “I was afraid it would interfere with learning, that having cameras in the classroom would put me ill at ease, and the students wouldn’t be attentive,” Swanson explains. But he’s an adviser to the school’s lesbian and gay student alliance, and the filmmakers wanted to record one of the series’ stars at the group’s meetings. As it turns out, the alliance was willing to appear on television to show a national audience what gay teenagers are like. Once he acquiesced, Swanson says, he found that "[the crews] sort of became invisible. It became second nature—'Can we wire you up? Put a microphone down your shirt?’ A lesson I took from the experience was something that Joe Senese, the assistant principal, said to me: Sometimes you relinquish control to have greater influence.”
Given the fast pace of the show, viewers will probably not see enough classroom instruction to judge the quality of teaching at Highland Park High. But the relationships some teachers— including Bodle, Swanson, band director Jim Hile, and school psychologist Kevin Caines—have with students outside the classroom show up on film. And it’s possible to draw some conclusions about public schooling from the series. As Swanson observes: “We’re wrestling with issues that people wrestle with everywhere: How do students treat each other? What are the values we are trying to teach? In the aftermath of Columbine, are students marginalized, and what are we doing about it?” However, he notes, “Highland Park is different in that we have resources that other schools don’t. For each of those issues I listed, we have a program to deal with it—a school social worker, a drop-in center with a full-time drug and alcohol counselor, an advocate teacher for gay students.”
Highland Park High faculty, students, and district administrators previewed the series in July, and Benjamin says she’s excited about “how much of a conversation-starter it is.” For example, it’s got some Highland Park teachers mulling over methods to make education a higher priority for students. “It’s a real wake-up call to see that other students, parents—those are the relationships that influence students,” says Swanson. “I think we teachers are in the trinity there, but now I feel I have to seek additional ways of getting the kids engaged, more ways of getting parents involved.”
As far as Cutler is concerned, Highland Park High’s administrators earn an A for their willingness to take a risk on an educational opportunity. “To me, what makes [the] school special is not that the valedictorian is going to Harvard or the salutatorian is going to Yale, but that a kid in danger of flunking was exposed to this project and is now going to go off and become a cinematographer,” he says. “This school is really willing to educate kids in the most expansive sense of the word.”