Aseries of broken promises hovers over every frame of this chilling examination of an inner city elementary school: the promise of safety, the promise of education, the promise of childhood and, ultimately, the promise of hope.
“I Am a Promise” is a difficult 90 minutes of television, often frustrating and always heart-wrenching. On one level, it is the story of a year in the life of an elementary school in Philadelphia and the efforts of a dedicated white principal named Deanna Burney to bring order to chaos and instill in her 725 children — all black, 90% of whom live below the poverty line and in single-parent homes — at least the germ of hope and possibility.
On a deeper level, it is the story of her failure, the failure of her methods and the system she represents.
Burney has done much to make Stanton at least a physically inviting place to come to school.
The corridors are clean, and the rooms are cheerful; there is no peeling paint or asbestos to foul young lungs. But how do you make a place infested on all corners with drugs, violence, dysfunctional families and fear an emotionally nourishing place to learn?
Ultimately, what Burney herself learns is she can’t, and in the documentary’s final ironic plot twist, the woman who, Jesse Jackson-like, has tried so hard to indoctrinate her students with words and chants of self-esteem, simply gives up and leaves.
The majority of teachers at Stanton are inflicted with the same frustrations.
The one clear success is John Coates, a black man who’s been given a class of first-graders, all boys, for whom he is a role model, coach, motivator and well of understanding.
In a special experiment, he will remain the boys’ teacher through fifth grade.
A product of the neighborhood, Coates is steeped in its problems and offers real alternatives.
It’s no surprise that, at the end of the year, his class is the one that performs best in standardized citywide testing.
With their shelf of award-winning credits like “Doing Time,””Into Madness,” and “An American Family Revisited: The Louds Ten Years Later,” Susan and Alan Raymond have earned their place among America’s finest documentarians.
Yet, with all the hours they must have shot over the year, it’s surprising what their cameras missed.
There is, for example, the wonderful story of a 10-year-old girl who found her home life so intolerable that she bravely decided to change that life by moving in with a kindly older gentleman she refers to as her grandfather.
Not only is he no relation, he has no recollection of how she came to him, yet he has taken her in “like a cat,” he says, cared for her, nurtured her and given her a base from which to draw strength and encouragement. But the Raymonds offer no single moment of the two together.
What they do offer is powerful nonetheless: children in despair, children turned off, children who fear, children who find syringes in the playground, and even the rare child — or teacher — who breaks through by somehow breaking the chain of hopelessness.
The final sadness is just how rare the breaks seem to be.