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New TV Docuseries Asks: Can a Chicago Area High School Change the Conversation About Race?

“America To Me” is a new 10-part documentary series premiering on Starz, exploring the racial inequalities in a suburban Chicago high school.

Produced by Steve James, whose credits include the highly acclaimed 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, the series focuses on the 2015-2016 school year of Oak Park and River Forest High School, in suburban Chicago.

Students from varied backgrounds are featured—African-American, Asian-American, Latino, biracial and white, but most notably the documentary reveals how the educational system too often fails African-American teens.

James sent his own kids to school in Oak Park—a Chicago suburb widely viewed as a liberal, mixed-race neighborhood whose residents allegedly resisted white flight in favor of an “American experiment in true diversity.”

Oak Park and River Forest High School is comprised of children from this area. The racial breakdown of the student body is just over half white and nearly a quarter black.

Although the school’s graduation rate is 95 percent, there’s a pronounced gap in test scores and future prospects between white students and students of color that one administrator says has remained virtually static, despite being a known issue since 2003.

“America to Me”, its title derived from a Langston Hughes poem, aims for a broad view and focuses on parents, teachers and administrators as well, who speak openly about the failure to address racial disparities within the educational system.

“We’re preparing our black students less well,” one school employee states early on.

In one episode, a black assistant principal tears up when expressing her frustrations of trying to work in a system “grounded in white cultural norms.”

Early previews reveal how the issue of race still permeated seemingly innocuous occasions such as sports games where racist rhetoric is tossed around from the opposing team, or the school’s dance squad, which somehow becomes segregated by race—based on skill level.

The show was previewed at the Sundance Film Festival. Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips commented that it “will end up doing a lot of good for a lot of people,” given our current cultural climate.

“America to Me” premiered Sunday, August 26 on Starz at 10 p.m. Eastern Time.


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