The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
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From The Asian Reporter, V20, #12 (March 30, 2010), page 11.
Whatever It Takes chronicles rookie principal’s first year in the Bronx
Whatever It Takes
By Christopher Wong
Distributed by the Independent Television Service
Airing Tuesday, March 30 from 11:00pm to midnight on Oregon Public Broadcasting
By Allison Voigts
You will get the best education in the city of New York," promises principal Edward Tom to a group of South Bronx high schoolers in Christopher Wong’s Independent Lens documentary Whatever It Takes, airing March 30 on Oregon Public Broadcasting.
To a group of students in one of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods, who had been told at other schools they would not succeed, the promise Tom made on the first day of class in 2005 sounded like a long shot.
But with sheer force of will, the Chinese-American principal has brought the graduation rate of his school, the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, to 84 percent — compared to 52 percent in the rest of the Bronx.
Tom, who has been profiled in the past year by CBS News and the New York Daily News, knows what it’s like to grow up poor with parents who never graduated from high school. As a student he excelled in school, driven by a goal to become wealthy and retire by the age of 30.
Tom studied business and chose a career in retail, working as a men’s clothing buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue. But one day, after buying a lizard-skin belt for himself with a retail tag of more than $300, Tom began to ask himself whether money and success were leaving him fulfilled — or empty.
After talking with his wife and praying, he decided that if he could find a teaching position and get certified to teach within one week, he would pursue a career as an educator. It took only three days.
"To be an educator is noble," says Tom’s father, who discouraged his son from an early dream of studying law. "Being a lawyer is the worst."
In 2005, Tom helped open the doors of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, one of hundreds of small schools created by New York City’s Department of Education to try to reform the city’s education system. With only 108 students enrolled in the school’s first class, Tom knows each student — and who is skipping class or failing a subject.
Tom preaches a "tough love" brand of education, holding students accountable for their own success and repelling excuses while also greeting the students outside the school every day and helping them fix their uniforms. The school employs a small group of devoted teachers, many of them in their first or second year of teaching, to work one-on-one with students and provide the tutoring they need to pass their Regents exams and graduate.
Whatever It Takes follows the story of one student, Sharifea, a ninth-grader who studies math at a fourth-grade level and dreams of becoming a pediatrician. With her mother battling hepatitis and drug addiction and two younger siblings to care for, Sharifea shows enthusiasm and skill for math and poetry, but has trouble completing her homework and studying for tests.
The film’s conflict revolves around whether Sharifea will be accepted to a highly selective national summer program at Dartmouth University. However, the film wraps up with no mention of whether Sharifea, who would have graduated by now, is attending college; this seems like an ill omen, given the focus on Sharifea’s success story throughout the hour-long documentary.
Meanwhile Tom plans to open three more small schools in the Bronx. "Not too many people want to stay and fight here," says Tom — which is why he does.
Whatever It Takes airs Tuesday, March 30 from 11:00pm to midnight on Oregon Public Broadcasting. The show repeats Thursday, April 1 from 4:00 to 5:00am. To verify showtimes, call (503) 293-1982 or visit <www.opb.org>. To learn more about the film, visit <www.whateverittakesdoc.com>.