What started out as a film about a revolutionary alternative to traditional school quickly morphed into a story conveying the nuanced relationships within a community when race and wealth can no longer be ignored. A small view into the larger issues within the United States as a whole and the educational systems that are offered to today’s youth, the film follows one headstrong albeit naive educator from the suburbs and a group of brave families who out of desperation with the Philadelphia public school system decide to join forces for a social “experiment” that we document over the course of 3 years.
When we learned that 73-year-old Peter – a rebel veteran educator who believes that formalized education is the problem not the solution – was taking his form of “unschooling” to Philadelphia, we were intrigued to document the journey. Peter espouses a radical methodology that empowers students to direct their own educations, favoring dialogue, discovery and self-discipline over tests, teachers and timelines. Having already run the successful Open Connections center in the bucolic, wealthy and predominantly white Philadelphia suburbs, he figures, “I’m not getting any younger, it’s now or never” and opens the doors in 2016 to a new location in North Philadelphia called Natural Creativity Center (NCC).
At the start of this journey we met many local Philadelphia families who were on the brink with the school system and trying to decide what was the best option for their children. We follow the artistic 14-year-old Miles, whose fierce mother Marie fears he is getting swept up into the pipeline to prison system. We meet 13-year-old curious Amani, who was relentlessly bullied at school, punched in the face, and whose mother Amanda is concerned for her safety and ability to thrive. Finally we meet ultra-cool Jaya, who at the age of 16 barely has the capacity to read or do basic math, and her father Willie who is desperate to find a solution for his daughter.
We capture the first meeting between Peter and these characters and their disbelief that his wacky ideas will work. They are hesitant but seeing no other option take a huge chance, going against the grain to enroll their children for the inaugural year of NCC.
Not everyone agrees with Peter’s philosophy. He is confronted by vocal lawyers, educational advocates, and local educators – namely Mikail, who becomes the instigator pushing Peter to his limits. Mikail is deeply skeptical of Peter and his methods, certain that “unschooling” is just another naive pipedream, a feel-good remedy cooked up by people who don’t understand the dynamics of the world they are trying to help. He believes this is a waste of these students’ time, that it will leave the at-risk youth in his community in even worse shape than before.
Does this alternative education hold the key to their success, or will it leave them no better off than before? Will their gamble pay off? Only time will tell.