Welcome to Commie High sneak peek traces decades of local history and advocates for alternative education
A sneak preview of Welcome to Commie High, a documentary directed by local filmmaker Donald Harrison with participation from Community High School students, premiered Sunday May 12 as a work in progress at the Michigan Theater in the 2019 Cinetopia Film Festival. The film traces the evolution of Ann Arbor’s Community High School, from its foundings as an experimental new approach to education in 1972, to the families that camped in front of the school to be the first ones in line for admission in the ‘90s, to the lives of students attending now. The premier began with a performance by the Community jazz band and was followed by a Q and A with Harrison, co-producer David Camlin, featured Community alum and parent Kelly Stupple, and student assistant editor Emma Hoffman. Over 800 people were in the audience, and proceeds went towards final editing.
This film was filmed over one school year and covers many subjects — at once a tribute to the advantages of alternative education models, a history of the school, and a moving portrait of a year in the life of a group of high schoolers. “We really hope that we breathe life into this film so you can understand what Community was, and then became, and now is,” Harrison said. “And that people, whether you went there or heard about it or have no idea what Commie High is, would care about it and understand what the school is about.”
A “school without walls” uses Ann Arbor as a classroom
Community High School is indeed a unique model for public education. Conceived as a “school without walls,” the idea behind Community was to use the city as a classroom. Students can take Community Resource (CR) classes in any subject they choose with local community members as their teachers. The school has an open campus, meaning when students are not in class, they can explore downtown Ann Arbor or stay home as they please. Other differences from traditional schools include calling teachers by their first names, a mandatory class called “forum” which functions as a homeroom or at-school family, and traditions like Opening Day, Forum Day, Multicultural Fair and Field Day. Community prides itself on its personal teacher-student relationships and the freedom students have to pursue their own interests. While it still faces problems — the issue of racial and socioeconomic diversity is explored in the film — “Commie High” is one of the few remaining experimental schools birthed in the ‘70s alternative schools movement.
Hoffman was one of a group of students who worked alongside Harrison and his team on the documentary as a Community Resource class. “It was important to me that the school was represented in a real way, and I think we achieved that,” Hoffman said. Although it took two and a half years of filming, interviewing, collecting data and editing, these students now have a full-length documentary to put on their resumes.
A film to inspire
As a recent Community graduate myself, this film brought together all the aspects of the place I called home for four years — the history, the ideology, and the people who set it apart from “normal” neighborhood schools. Even if you have no connection to the school, you will be able to relate to the experiences of generations of students that Harrison and his team expertly weave together into one unified story of a school that dared to try something new. Although the film is not completely finished and still a little rough around the edges (the finished product may have some parts added or cut, and audio needs to be fixed), the compelling storyline still shines through.
“We want people to be inspired by this,” Camlin said. “What we’re hopeful for is that another large city or small community or whatever it is that is wondering what to do with their school systems, they’ll see this and say, ‘We might not do exactly that, but we can do something like that, and we can do what works for us.’ So it’s really not about selling the Community model to everybody. The idea is that this is one way to do it, it worked for this city and it worked for this community, and other communities that are willing to take that chance can have a similar positive result.”
Welcome to Commie High is still in the final stage of production, and is expected to be completed at the end of the summer. Watch the trailer at 7cylinders.com/commie-high and follow along for updates on when the finished product will be available for public viewing: facebook.com/welcometocommiehigh.
For a complete guide to the Cinetopia Film Festival, visit cinetopiafestival.org.