An Educator Teaches At-Risk Students Respect And Trust In “The Bad Kids”

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April 28, 2016 — For its students, Black Rock Continuation High School is a last chance.

Coming from an indigent area in the Mojave Desert, the kids who find themselves at Black Rock are at serious risk of dropping out. Many are from troubled families and have had to cope with poverty, parental drug abuse, homelessness — significant issues that can sidetrack anyone. 

The young people at this school have been labeled “Bad Kids,” unable to graduate from traditional public schools. Alternative schools like Black Rock have been thought of as little more than repositories for failing students. The kids most people have given up on. 

Kids who have given up on themselves.

But Black Rock, and other schools like it, are proving that it is the school system that is failing, not the children. Black Rock’s graduation rate is rising every year. And a number of the young people who were looked on as hopeless are coming through and succeeding against all odds. Although Continuation schools in California have been the most effective program for troubled children that the state has had for almost 95 years, they have gotten little attention and less support. 

Black Rock’s MO has been devised by an exceptional and caring staff. Principal Vonda Viland takes it on herself to focus on the students as individuals, attempting to deal with the stresses and traumas that their difficult lives leave them open to. She concerns herself primarily with keeping the students in school, recognizing that academic achievement can come later. She develops a personal relationship with all at-risk kids (she often gets into school before 5:00, calling those she feels are likely to miss school; she has been known to pick up students in her car if they have no way to get in). Students are treated with respect, greeted by name at the door. They are taught to respect themselves and to think about the future. For many of these kids, this is the first time that anyone has treated them in this way.

The Bad Kids documents the way Principal Viland and her staff look out for these young people. It focusses on three students, Joey, Jennifer and Lee, whose lives are a trauma cycle of abuse, homelessness, drug abuse (their own and their parents’) and teenage pregnancy. It shows that for these three students (and by extension, for so many others) being treated with respect is a new experience; being taught to think of themselves as people with a future is both frightening and eye-opening.

Black Rock is an example of a school that can make a difference in the lives of its most endangered students and set them on a path to something most thought they could never achieve — a high school diploma.

FilmRise will release The Bad Kids theatrically this fall.
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