Heartwarming documentary highlights disparity
In her film The Highest Standard, director Isara Krieger examines the education gap within Boston public schools, and the lengths that some students are forced to go to to achieve the same successes as their more privileged peers.
The film follows three Bostonian students, Meleah, Makai, and Exavion, who choose to attend Beacon Academy after completing middle school; a fourteen month program in between eighth and ninth grade designed to academically accelerate low income students of color and prepare them to enter prestigious private high schools.
The stark and unjust differences between a suburban and urban education is highlighted through statistics and graphics, but most impactful are the personal stories that Krieger depicts. The connection the viewer feels with the three subjects of the film is palpable; you’re rooting for these kids from the moment they first come on screen to the last shot of them standing comfortably on the campuses of their respective high schools. Krieger achieves this through a series of interviews as well as a look into their daily lives at school and home, with the latter being most successful in helping the viewer to understand and relate to the kids.
Krieger depicts the tough love attitude taken on by the teachers and faculty of Beacon Academy, who know the only way to prepare its students for their futures is by being brutally honest. The camera cuts from the teachers, who are more than frank with the kids about their below average test scores, to students looking down at their papers, knowing they’re failing but now knowing how to fix it.
These moments are balanced out with just as many, if not more, illustrations of joy during the school day. Trips to art museums and into New York City, days the kids spend with mentors they call “coaches,” and jokes between students and staff examine the more lighthearted part of the school day, as well.
As weeks pass and application deadlines loom closer, the students blossom. Their test scores improve drastically and they become more confident.
One of the most emotional moments of the documentary is decision day, when the kids receive their acceptance letters from the high schools. The energy in the classroom that day is contagious, and the students show as much excitement as you would expect from kids on Christmas morning. The image of classmates cheering and hoisting each other up on their shoulders when they’re accepted, of them calling their parents with the good news and of their teachers hugging them teary-eyed, stays with the viewer long after the credits have rolled.
At the end of the film, the three students reflect on their time at Beacon Academy. Meleah’s interview is a standout moment, as she recalls the toll the rigorous academics had on her mental health. From her first appearance on screen as an eighth grader, Meleah’s love of learning is evident, and she aims for perfection in every assignment she completes. When Krieger finds her as a senior at Concord Academy years later, Meleah is grateful for her past experiences but has a different attitude than her younger self. She explains that after years of attaching her self worth to her grades and knowledge, she has realized the harm this has had on her mental health. She is about to graduate and attend Brown University, and is happy to say she doesn’t quite know what she wants to study. This version of Meleah is the same intelligent and self-assured girl the viewer first met, but older, wiser, and more at ease with the unknown.
The Highest Standard tackles an important issue, one more than worthy of the time it takes to watch the film, and does so in a graceful and sensitive manner. It sparks conversation about the disparity within the Massachusetts education system, forcing the viewer to confront the systemic racism that has caused this issue, as well as raising the question of what can be done to solve it.