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American Promise 

A documentary looks at the education system as experienced by two boys from Brooklyn

Schooled: Idris (left) and Seun

Schooled: Idris (left) and Seun

The troubles with America's education system are defined by millions of individual kids' stories, and two of them are told in American Promise. In 1999, two New York City parents — Joe Brewster and Michele Stevenson — began documenting the educational paths of their 5-year-old son Idris and his best friend, Seun. Both boys — African American, from stable, supportive homes in Brooklyn — had been accepted into Manhattan's prestigious Dalton School.

The documentary portrait is intimate, and not intended to be representative beyond its participants. But throughout, the parents and the boys struggle with larger issues that are perennial topics in education: class, race, gender, parental involvement and public vs. private. Oddly, another huge factor, money, is mentioned only in passing.

The film understandably spends more time with the filmmakers' son, Idris, even though Seun faces more challenges and has the more interesting case study. (After Dalton, Seun attends a much different public high school in Brooklyn.) It may be the result of being filmed, but the boys are remarkably self-aware about their educational journey; both also seem like nice, bright kids, and you feel for them when simply "going to school" is so difficult. American Promise doesn't necessarily offer any solutions, but it poses plenty of questions for discussion.

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