As Thanksgiving dawns on us this year, it may be difficult to come to terms with the inability to gather with our family and catch up with old friends. But in this time we must find safer ways to come together, to communicate and reminisce about the past. Luckily, this week in our Virtual Movie Palace we have a Ann Arbor-focused documentary that inspires this kind of nostalgic sentiment.
WELCOME TO COMMIE HIGH, from local director Donald Harrison, explores the history of Ann Arbor’s “alternative” Community High School (CHS), founded on an experimental “school-without-walls” concept in 1972. The school offers opportunities for students to design their own learning within the surrounding community, and collaborate with their classmates in a more intimate setting. Its inception and implementation is a success story for out-of-the-box thinking, and a remarkable case study for a system that does not conform to the national, standard idea of education.
This film may be specific to a particular high school experience, but it has a universal scope and the ability to provoke personalized memories and remind us what made our own high school experience unique. Most of all, it taps into an optimistic passion for education with a lesson to remind ourselves of what’s important in our public education system.
The film opens with a 1996 NPR Morning Edition report from the campus of Community High as a line was forming of potential students and their parents, camped out and waiting as long as 2 weeks to enroll. This was the last year that a first-come-first serve system was in place before implementing the lottery draw that is still in use today, and the first glimpse into the popularity that Community enjoyed. We then flash back to 1972 when the school was first born out of the Nixon administration and the deescalating Vietnam War, becoming a home for “misfits” in the Ann Arbor community and a welcome space for alternative discourse.
Harrison captures the spirit and attitude of these early years with decade-appropriate, home grown music recorded by bands and musicians from Community High, playing over newspaper clippings, modern and archival, and interviews with members of the first batch of graduates. Some of the more intimate and nostalgic pieces of history are a series of VHS clips taken in the school’s film studies class in the 1980s. In a few words, what we’re shown and meant to celebrate are examples of kids being kids, comfortably accentuating the culture and style of the time.
Harrison then spends the appropriate amount of time defining the basic concepts of the school, or the “The Founding Blueprint” as it is referred to, focusing on: Forum, Community Resources, and Relationships. We understand Forum as a time of day set for students of all grades to gather and learn together. In Community Resources we’re given examples of how students design their own curriculum, like skateboarding for a PE credit, or even sneaking into community pools. But it’s the Relationships portion that means the most, as Harrison allows us to meet and spend time with a select group of students that drive home the emotion and spirit of this film.
Filmed during the 2016-2017 school year, not only do we get to learn more about long-time faculty like Judith Dewoskin, but we spend time with former CHS students Kelly Stupple and her daughter Leah, who enters the lottery for the incoming Freshman class. We meet (then) current student Hannah Rubenstein, who works on the school publication The Communicator; Clarence Collins, who divides his extracurricular activities between theater and music; and Betoul Ajin, whose father faces deportation. In this time, the film finds its emotion and we understand just how strong the CHS community really is, and what it means to the student body and faculty.
But of course, the history of Community is not all sunshine and roses, and Harrison doesn’t shy away from these trickier subjects. In the 1970s and 80s drugs were plentiful on campus, and relationships between students and teachers was “rampant” as described on camera. And about 10 years into the experiment, the school faced the threat of closure due to the increasing low attendance. But today it remains one of the few surviving alternative public schools from this era, and this backstory proves just how strong the community within Community stands, and how much support and belief lives inside its walls.
Harrison’s documentary is not just a tribute to the exception that Community High created, but a testament to how public education has the capability to succeed with the highest marks for students across the board. Though I did not attend Community High, I felt the nostalgia for my own high school experience where I found my niche in the arts and athletics, and connected similarly with my own English teacher like so many did with Judith. These experiences allowed for my own individual experience, and it’s easy to understand how any school that promotes group learning and experiences can allow the same.
I hope that this documentary makes you feel the same way. And I hope it inspires you to reach out to your old friends this week, whether you would normally see them around the holidays or not.
Following this viewing, we have another documentary in our Virtual Movie Palace about a similar group of mavericks, but in this case, they changed the image of rock ‘n’ roll. CREEM: AMERICA’S ONLY ROCK ‘N’ MAGAZINE is still available, exploring the history of the Detroit publication that stuck a middle finger up to mainstream art.
That’s all from me. Happy Thanksgiving and have a great rest of your week!