We've seen it portrayed in feature films numerous times: hard-edged teacher/principal saves under-priviledged students through tough love. On screen it's endearing, emotional, and succinct...in reality it's an ongoing battle that many dedicated teachers and school administrators face.
Principal Ed Tom of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics (BCSM) is one of those real-life educators who has dedicated his time, sacrificed his family occasionally, and has committed whole-heartedly to the improvement and empowerment of his students.
The journey of Ed Tom from his first day as principal at the BCSM to the last day of the first year of school were documented by director Christopher Wong in the documentary "Whatever it Takes." It was featured at Toronto's Carlton Cinemas from September 24 through 26, 2010 and has won numerous accolades at film festivals, including the Asian American International Film Festival.
In what the Globe and Mail called a "case study on urban schools," Whatever it Takes aimed to highlight the suffering school system in the South Bronx, and how one man's vision made an impact in a community that otherwise lacked educational opportunities. In his feature length debut as director and producer, Christopher Wong shadowed principal Ed Tom as well as his students to gain a clear picture of their daily routines, challenges, and the strength they channeled to overcome these challenges.
At times he raised his voice and displayed an obvious frustration when students made foolish decisions, or careless judgements. Yet he left his home before sunrise each day to ensure he was at the front of the school to greet each student by name, with a handshake. Ed Tom had his work cut out for him, but stood firm in his goal to transform his school of 170 students into college bound scholars.
Along with viewing the journey from Ed Tom's perspective, one young student, a girl named Sharifea, struggled throughout the year as the documentary progressed. The oldest of three siblings, Sharifea was often responsible for caregiving, chores, and seeing that her mother (former drug-addict, suffering from hepatitis) was also well taken care of. You could see the hope and promise on Sharifea's mother face each time she spoke of her daugher: she was carrying the weight of her family, and generations before her, on her young shoulders.
And like Sharifea, there are students everywhere who are failing in their courses, yet dealing with multitude of priorities, expectations, and often conflicting responsibilities.
What fictional depictions like Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers as well as this documentary always demonstrate is the importance of consistency in care and support from the school/community, to the home, to the student. Whatever it Takes often made mention of this importance, and how each member of the triangle (parents-school-student) were active--and necessary--participants in order to see measureable success.
Sharifea barely passed the school year, but still was accepted into a 3-year summer enrichment program at Dartmouth College. She found drive, despite her stressful circumstances.
Ed Tom continued to give 100% passion and support to his students, right until the last days when they displayed improved test scores in a city-wide assessment.
It's a traditional story of a dedicated mentor, and an important documentary to watch to see how much impact can be made by one individual with enough passion and vision to encourage dozens of young minds.
For more info on how you can view this documentary, please visit www.WhateverItTakes.com.