Doing it for Me: A U.S. Department of Education Documentary Screening and Panel Discussion on Personal Struggle and Supporting Youth

School dropouts are saddled with so many preconceptions. The popular narrative is that they are either lazy, they give up, or they simply don’t want to go to school.

To many students who decide to leave middle or high school, these stereotypes couldn’t be further from the truth.

Recently, the student-produced documentary Doing it for Me was screened at ED’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. The audience was given an intimate look into the personal story of D.C. high school dropout Precious Lambert, and learned how she got back on track and helped her two best friends – Victoria Williams and Jessica Greene – navigate tough life-altering decisions.

Before an audience of ED staff and policy makers, panelists gave examples of how both the arts and the concern of teachers for their students can promote successful learning. (Photo credit: Meridian Hill Pictures)

Before an audience of ED staff and policy makers, panelists gave examples of how both the arts and the concern of teachers for their students can promote successful learning. (Photo credit: Meridian Hill Pictures)

Following the screening, Leah Edwards, the film’s co-director; Jessica Greene, who is featured in the film; Maureen Dwyer, executive director of Sitar Arts Center; and former high school dropout and current alternative school student Cristian A. Garcia Olivera, participated in the panel discussion. Before an audience of ED staff and policy makers, they gave examples of how both the arts and the concern of teachers for their students can promote a successful learning environment.

Despite being in the top 2 percent of her high school class, Jessica lacked relationships with her teachers. “It was up to me to drive myself,” she explained. She believed there was a major problem in her education due to poor communication between students and teachers, and discovered that the only way to get back on track was to take personal responsibility.

Jessica found an outlet and a path to success at Sitar Arts Center, a local organization that advances life skills for underserved youth through holistic arts programs. Though she often denied her feelings at home, Jessica said, “At Sitar I could be me; I could let loose.”

Through the work of Sitar Arts Center, Maureen was able to show how the arts are essential to critical and creative thinking — and how arts education can help students at risk of dropping out persevere beyond school. This aligns with the National Endowment for the Arts research that show students with low socioeconomic status perform better when they are engaged in the arts, and are two times more likely to enroll in four-year colleges.

Christian said that when teachers show an interest in their students it can make a huge impact on their lives. He dropped out of his traditional school and is currently (and happily) enrolled in an alternative school. “At alternative schools the teachers are really nice. The classes are really small, with only 20 kids per class, and . . . teachers teach you in a way to get to know you better,” he said.

Getting a second chance can make all the difference in the world for students like Precious, Victoria, Jessica and Christian. An audience member summed up his understanding of the film’s powerful message: “If you’ve made the bad choice, you can still fix it.”

Watch the entire discussion on ED Stream.

This event was a part of the ED Youth Voices Policy Briefing Session program, aimed at providing U.S. Department of Education staff and stakeholders with student perspectives on educational policy issues.

Samuel Ryan is a special assistant and youth liaison in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.