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Documenting the impact on communities when schools close

Photo: Amy Yeboah and NewsWorks

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Monika Zaleska

This summer, Amy Yeboah will complete a short documentary on four Philadelphia schools that closed this year, working with the Notebook as part of her fellowship sponsored by the Samuel S. Fels Fund. Yeboah, who holds a doctorate in African American studies from Temple University, talked to us about what she learned trailing teachers, students, and families during their last days of school and how their narrative unfolds on screen.

Tell me a little about your work and the project you’re working on this summer.
My dissertation was about education, particularly what’s going on with African American education and how we close the excellence gap. The Notebook wanted a short documentary focused on a couple of schools to try to give more meaning and narrative to what’s going on at a local level with families, students, communities, and how they’re impacted. The four schools we looked at are Germantown High School, Bok Technical High School, Fairhill Elementary School, and University City High School in West Philadelphia.

What does your process look like, first in going to these sites and talking to people and, later, in editing the footage and putting it together?
This is the first time I’ve been a journalist, which is a different angle than being a researcher. I went to the schools themselves and followed a couple of people for their last weeks and recorded. I observed, I did some sit-down interviews with principals, teachers, and community members, and also documented events. Some schools had closing ceremonies. Particularly, I documented the last couple of hours of each school being open. Then from there, I wrote the narratives, from beginning to end, of what was the main theme or main story that stood out for that school. I also tried to give some historical context to the schools, like, how old are these schools? What neighborhood do people come from? I did a lot of background research.

If you were to give us a sneak peek of what we’ll see when the documentary is complete, what would you say we’ll see?
You’ll see the faces of what school closing means: students’ faces, families’ faces. You’ll see hurt, you’ll see pain, you’ll see struggle, you’ll see frustration, you’ll see let-down and disappointment. You’ll see tears, you’ll see desks, you’ll see walls, you’ll see all these things that have been engulfed in two words: school closing.

What was being there for the last few days of school like?
It was very sad to hear people’s stories, and then take them and leave. I feel like sometimes people felt that if I took their story, somehow, some way, I would be able to change it, that it would make a difference. The second thing was knowing that I had a chance to go to high school and I never went through this. To just sit here and see people go through it, that was very tough. Sometimes I didn’t know what questions to ask, because people didn’t have any answers. “How do you feel?” That was a basic question I asked, but it was hard to ask, “What are you doing next?” because they wouldn’t know.

What are your hopes for this project, which will hopefully be done by the end of July?
Well, I was starting to hope what these people were hoping, that the schools would stay open. After it ended, it was like that hope is gone. I think the logical part of the conversation is that some schools have low enrollment and that others have poor academic performance, so just close them. On the logical side that does make sense. But on the human side, they’re still people. They still hurt, they still cry and they still struggle. Even if it was not the best-case scenario, now they have extra struggles. If schools are closing for poor performance, where they go should perform better. When people are hurting, it’s important that people listen to what’s going on.

Monika Zaleska is an intern at the Notebook.

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