After learning about the racial achievement gaps in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, a group of students, filmmakers and educational leaders joined together to produce “I’m Smart, Too,” a documentary that aims to highlight disparities in a system of integrated schools and segregated students.
In CHCCS, white students in 3rd through 8th grade are nearly three times more likely to demonstrate career and college readiness than Black students, according to the 2019 Racial Equity Report Card produced by the Youth Justice Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for equity in education.
Kim Talikoff, the lead producer for the film, said the team aims to send the message that schools need to be intentional in the messages they send to kids in early grades to avoid reinforcing misconceptions. She said the film explores “how the seeds of the disparities are cultivated in the early grades and the lasting impact of these experiences.”
Talikoff said kids make meaning out of the world at a young age and tracking practices may shape the way students understand themselves and others as learners. These tracking practices can include grouping students according to IQ, test scores or other achievement metrics. However, she said phasing those tracking practices out would require significant support from teachers and the community.
She said even at a young age, children make meaning of race and racial identity, and they give significant weight to the messages they are receiving from the adults around them. When younger children see students of certain demographics being tracked into accelerated groups and others being held in slower-paced groups, they may seek to make meaning out of that.
Jeremiah Rhodes, the director of photography and editor for the film, said the long-term effects of educational disparities are often talked about. However, he said in researching for the documentary, he discovered the immediate effects of an unequal school system affect younger students at a deeper emotional level.
“I think that there was something really visceral to me about what it does to kids, like while they're still in the system, and what it means to them to not be chosen,” Rhodes said.
Alexandra Odom, the historian and associate producer on the team, traced the legacy of current racial disparities in CHCCS back to the 1960s, when the district began to integrate schools. She said schools during that time weren’t equipped to support students of color, which led to traumatic experiences of school integration.
“What we have seen is that even people who have graduated from the Chapel Hill school system, who are in college now, or who would now have children in the school system have consistently said that they have felt that there is a difference in the way that Black students are being educated and brown students are being educated within the school system,” Odom said.
She said the educational system is seen as a competition partly because parents often focus on their own children’s success without considering how other people’s children are negatively impacted by the school system. Odom said the school system and the community should not be okay with such stark disparities in graduation rates and test scores.
Rhodes said the systems that cause these problems don't run on their own, and parents, superintendents and teachers have power to mitigate the harm they're doing.
"I want people to wake up and see that this is happening," he said. "I want people in Chapel Hill and the school system, be it parents or people on the boards or whatever the case may be — people involved in the school system — to see this and understand that this is a problem, and this is hurting people."
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