The story of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics is one of intimate dramas, big dreams and aspirations, enormous highs and lows, and as told by Christopher Wong his documentary “Whatever It Takes,” it is a chronicle of how one small upstart school in New York has helped to shape the discussion of educational reform in the U.S.
Shot over the course of one school year, Wong’s documentary follows charismatic first-time principal Ed Tom as he strives to build a future for a talented group of inner-city students, and specifically, ninth-grader Sharifea Baskerville, who is struggling to overcome enormous personal challenges to succeed academically.
The exquisitely crafted, award-winning first film from Christopher Wong, “Whatever It Takes” is a moving portrait of a community, a school and a set of dedicated individuals who are doing whatever it takes to inspire hope and change for the next generation. This must-see film is available this month on XFINITY On Demand.
The story of Principal Ed Tom and the first year of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics is such a rich, compelling and dramatic one – how did you find it?
CW: I had been friends with Ed Tom (the main character of my film) for many years, when he was still working in the corporate world, so I already knew then of his desire to do something big with his life. When he told me that he was going to be a principal in the South Bronx, I jumped on board immediately, because I knew that the combination of Ed Tom’s dynamic personality mixed with the birth of a new high school would create incredible drama.
While your film is a character-driven one, focusing on Principal Tom and the ninth-grader Sharifea Baskerville, it is also one which looks closely at the U.S. educational system: what works and what doesn’t work. Why was it important for you to make a film about education?
CW: For me, big issues like education are best explained from a ground-level view. Asking educational experts what they think about public schools is never going to be as compelling as watching one child trying to learn. In the character of ninth-grader Sharifea, we really begin to understand how poverty, drug addiction and family problems create a situation that is almost impossible to remedy. At the same time, we can then appreciate how amazing it is when Ed Tom and his teaching staff make great progress with Sharifea. With “Whatever It Takes,” I wanted viewers to have hope again in the public school system, with the knowledge that there were people like Ed and Sharifea striving to make things different. Personally, I am so much more optimistic now that I have witnessed all that goes on in these schools to help at-risk students graduate and go to college. As long as there are people who care, there will always be hope.
What characterizes making a documentary is that you don’t know what will happen once you start shooting; life and reality just begins to unfold in front of you. As you spent a year at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, how did the shape of the film change or keep with your expectations? At what point did you know that Sharifea was one of your main characters?
CW: The film changed a lot from my initial conception of what it would be. For instance, I had imagined that there might be some racial differences to overcome, since you have an Asian-American guy running a school that was 98% populated by African-American and Latino students. However, there were absolutely no racial problems, because the students and parents accepted Ed Tom completely as one of their own from the moment he took charge.
What did take a long time was figuring out which students would be our main characters. I started out by following six different ninth-graders (on the recommendations of the teachers and staff), and while all their stories were fascinating, it quickly became apparent that Sharifea’s story was the perfect one for us to tell. It also helped that Sharifea’s mother was so willing to allow us access to their home life. So, by mid-year of the production, we focused all of our efforts on Principal Ed Tom and Sharifea.
Education reform in the U.S. is a process which will take time; the past several years however have seen significant efforts by the federal government to do this, from Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiatives. From spending much first-hand experience examining a school over the course of the year, what in your mind is working, and what is not?
CW: What works is finding and retaining good teachers. All the research data supports this, as well as all of my own observations at the school each day. The principal’s most important job is hiring teachers who care about the children, are able to manage a classroom effectively, and can communicate the instructional material clearly. To keep teachers like these, you have to be able to pay them well. So I really agree with administrators like ex-D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee who advocated paying good teachers six-figure salaries. I also think that principals have to be able to quickly dismiss teachers who are not performing well – even those who have tenure. In my year with Ed Tom, I saw him fire two teachers before the school year even began because he felt they were not committed enough to his vision.
Your film was shot in 2005 and finished in 2009. For those who have seen the film, can you fill us in on where Sharifea, Principal Tom and the school are today? SPOILER ALERT!
CW: “Whatever It Takes” was shot in during the 2005-06 school year, and we continued shooting for a few more years to get all the different shots we needed. Editing took another year, and then we finished the film in early 2009. We then screened the film at festivals in 2009, and finally on PBS nationally in 2010.
Right now, Principal Tom is still leading the Bronx Center for Science & Mathematics. His first class of students graduated with flying colors, garnering over $3 million in merit scholarships to prestigious universities like Dartmouth, Columbia, Middlebury and Penn. He is currently planning to open a few other schools in the South Bronx; however, it is a bit difficult to find the necessary funding to accomplish his lofty goals. But I have no doubt that he will do even more amazing things in the NYC educational system.
As for Sharifea, her story is not as positive as we all would have hoped. While she graduated from high school, she did not stay the full four years at the Bronx Center for Science & Mathematics. Much of this was due to her mother’s untimely death from liver cancer in November 2008. When that occurred, Sharifea fell into a bit of a tailspin, and her grades suffered. Since she was still a minor, Sharifea had to move in with her grandmother (who lived far away in Brooklyn) – and Sharifea often failed to even attend school. Eventually, Principal Tom had to make the hard decision to let her attend another school, and Sharifea ended up going to a special school in Upstate New York for alternative learners. Fortunately, she thrived while there and managed to get her GED.
While Sharifea has not yet decided to go to college, I think it is still a big accomplishment that she graduated from high school, which was something that no one in her family had ever managed to do. We don’t know what the future holds for Sharifea, but we do feel that the time spent with Principal Tom will yield positive results in the years to come.