Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Principal: Whatever It Takes

He is on a divinely inspired mission. Principal Edward Tom will educate his students whether they like it or not. The tough-talking inspirational principal leads his Bronx high school through a new academic year in Christopher Wong’s documentary Whatever It Takes (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday as part of the current season of PBS’s Independent Lens, following its festival run that included last year’s Asian American International Film Festival here in New York.

As a student, Tom was driven to succeed. After college, he was on the corporate fast track, yet the work was not satisfying. Instead, teaching Sunday school was the most rewarding part of his week. At the behest of his wife, Tom gave the matter serious prayer. He decided if he could get his provisional license and a teaching position during a one week vacation, he would accept it as a definitive sign from God. It only took three days.

Though Tom’s Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics is a public high school, but it looks like a small private school, complete with uniforms. Clearly a hands-on manager, Tom knows every kid by name and takes an active interest in their progress. There is definitely a bit of a Joe Clark swagger to him, but he seems somewhat less confrontational. Still, he does not mince words, constantly exhorting his students not to give excuses for failure but to fully commit to their education. You had better believe he maintains high standards. 80% is his school’s passing grade, not the typical 65%.

In his broadcast cut, Wong focuses on one student to embody the challenges Tom and his faculty face. Sharifea is smart and ambitious, but she is underperforming academically. Despite their dogged efforts, something just seems to be holding her back. Of course, we are reminded early on that Tom will not be able to succeed with every hard-case kid. That simply would not be realistic to expect.

Whatever is a surprisingly good little documentary. Though relatively modest in scope, it offers plenty of positive messages. Wong’s portrait of Tom reveals a man of deep faith who is devoted to his family. It celebrates one person’s ability to make a difference in the lives of many, but tempers its idealism with constructive realism. Wong also refrains from politicizing his boots-on-the-ground examination of education in urban America. The film never explicitly advocates for any specific policy, aside from the general implication that greater personal responsibility from everyone involved, including students and parents, will always lead to better results.

Tom definitely emerges as a charismatic figure, worth getting to know through Wong’s film. Given the mission he has accepted, it is impossible not to root for him. Whatever airs on most PBS outlets Tuesday (3/30).