Whatever It Takes
In 2002, New York's Department of Education began a radical measure to boost struggling youth above the grinding realities of poverty by creating hundreds of small schools in embattled communities. Filmed in the South Bronx, this candid documentary profiles the implementation of this project at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics high school.
Although Edward Tom beat out 100 other candidates for a prestigious sales job at age 21, a higher calling ultimately drew him away from retail to become the school’s rookie principle. The film’s title echoes his conviction: “It’s about doing whatever it takes to get the kids to where they need to go.”
The obstacles in Tom’s way include engaging hard-to-reach students and fielding criticism from teachers, who include an outspoken, seasoned social worker and a Princeton-educated, first-time science teacher who is unused to dealing with tough kids. Another prominent character is Sharifea Baskerville, a ninth-grader with a knack for poetry whose mother struggles with drug addiction — an all-too-common example of the sort of struggles faced by Bronx Center students. A large part of the story revolves around Tom and his colleagues trying to help Baskerville claim one of 30 available spots in the potentially life-transforming Summer Enrichment Dartmouth Program.
As you might expect, their efforts are sidetracked by plenty of turbulence, both on and off school grounds. Tensions reach a maximum when Baskerville begins to fail nearly all of her classes, and Tom agitates an already tense situation by holding back the student body in detention.
Whatever It Takes pays witness to the vital role that selfless, passionate teachers can play in the lives of youth. It chronicles a group of people who have chosen to fight for kids and goals that so many others have given up on. But it also points to some serious questions. Did Tom expect too much, too quickly from his students? Can education reform actually alleviate poverty?
Perhaps more importantly, this film profiles the value of perseverance. Even after an exhausting year, Tom remains undeterred: “If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Whatever It Takes, directed by Christopher Wong, United States: Third World Newsreel, 2011, 92 minutes