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THE STORY OF AN UNUSUAL SCHOOL
It’s 1972. A small, experimental public high school is started in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It’s set in an abandoned elementary school in a neglected area of downtown. There are some radical ideas and no rules. There is a blueprint. There’s no prom, no pool, no cafeteria and no sports teams, either. A rainbow zebra is the school’s unofficial mascot. The campus is open – students can come and go whenever they wish. They can develop their own curricula. And they call teachers by their first name. This is Commie High.
Through the 70s and 80s, Community High School (or Commie High as it’s often called—affectionately by insiders, disparagingly by outsiders) achieves many successes with its unorthodox approach. Its “schools without walls” concept gets students earning class credit for designing and participating in thousands of projects in the city and surrounding area. It’s one of the few high schools in America where “out of the closet” gay and lesbian youth are accepted without bullying. Yet, recruiting enough enrolled students to justify the school’s existence is an ongoing issue every year. So is the school’s reputation – it’s perceived negatively (and inaccurately) by many as primarily a landing place for drop-outs, drug users, misfits and weirdos.
Now it’s the early 90s. Alternative, slacker culture hits the mainstream. Non-conformity becomes cool and Commie High suddenly has a new problem: more students want to attend than there are spots available. The first Commie High camp out for admission occurs in 1992 on the front lawn of the school. A blizzard hits that night and everyone is let inside to sleep in the halls. The line grows longer (and starts earlier) each year while the school system tries new tactics to address the situation: a lottery to let in some, moving the line off site, and the radio announcement of a secret line location in 1995, setting off Canonball Run-like race across town.
Then it’s March 17, 1996. The situation reaches a surreal boiling point in a parking lot of a school administration building. Thirteen-year-old Maisie Wilhelm becomes “the line starter” by beginning to camp out more than two weeks before admissions are accepted. Word spreads like wild fire and within an hour, people are swarming to secure their place in line. By nightfall the lot is turned into a tiny tent city with over 50 hopeful students, their parents, siblings, friends, grandparents and even hired help taking turns to keep their spot in line. Over the next two weeks, there is a blizzard, bonding and bickering. There’s also a lot of local, regional and even national media attention, expressing dismay that a school could be so compelling. On April 2nd, a day after completing the admission process, the school board promptly announces dissolution of a line system, to cheers and outrage, switching permanently to a fully random lottery. This is the last line for Commie High.
Today, Community High School is a highly-regarded public magnet school. Test scores are often in the state’s top ten. Programs like the school’s newspaper, jazz band and theatre troupe win awards and accolades. There’s an alternative prom (started annually in 1995) and very few students call it Commie High anymore. Yet, the core philosophies remain. Community High School continues to present an intriguing model of what public education can look like from an alternative, humanistic approach.
WHY THIS FILM MATTERS
Public education reform is a hot button issue in America. It’s a complicated, polarizing topic that affects the lives of millions. There are more than 14 million high school students in over 29,000 public high schools across America; there are more than 1,000 public charter high schools and thousands of private high schools requiring paid tuition across the country. Yet, there is only one Commie High.
What can we learn by looking at an alternative model of public education that’s succeeded and evolved over four decades? What conditions allowed for the creation and long-term viability of the Community High School experiment in public education? And what would motivate students to camp out in the cold for days or weeks to attend a public school in a system containing other excellent options?
“High school is often considered a definitive American experience, in two senses: an experience that nearly everyone shares, and one that can define who you are, for better or worse, for the rest of your life. I’m grateful I escaped the particular definition that high school would have imposed on me, and I wish everyone else who suffered could have escaped it, too.” – Rebecca Solnit from "Abolish High School" Harper's Magazine, April 2015
Community High School’s blueprint was drawn in the early 1970s based on a humanistic approach to education. Three of its core tenants remain true to this day: 1) teachers spend time with students as people; 2) the Community Resources (CR) program encourages social participation by providing credit for activities outside of the "conventional" classroom; 3) self-expression and personal responsibility are developed through Forum, small groups that span across all grades and meet regularly as a family-like structure for students.
For nearly half a century, Commie High has served as an alternative reflection, and often harbinger, of America’s shifting social, cultural and political landscapes. The radical late 60s and psychedelic 70s fed into Commie High’s strong counterculture; punk and new wave music, skateboarding and computers were embraced in the 80s; the grunge/alternative movement of the 90s made Commie High seem so cool that by 1997 students were featured in a Seventeen magazine fashion spread. Questions of race, class, identity and privilege have swirled around the school and student body since its inception, adding some significant and sometimes surprising social dynamics to examine.
Community High School is not a panacea for all of public education’s ills. Our project is neither a promotional piece nor a critical inquisition. We believe that by turning our independent lens to the unusual story of Commie High, this film will add important considerations into conversations and public education and deepen our cultural understanding of our country’s last forty years.
“When I first met Maisie Wilhelm and learned about the two week camp out she sparked in 1996 to attend Commie High, I kept thinking “wow, what would I be willing to camp out two weeks for?” and just couldn’t imagine it. My own high school was a large public one in the Detroit suburbs. It was a traditional model of education and well-respected. Yet, it was the worst period of my life. The more I learned about Community High, the more I sensed that this was the kind of school I had needed. I can’t go back in time to change my high school experience, but I can shine a light on the story of this school, as we look at ways that communities can better prepare their young people to become successful adults through public education.” – Donald Harrison, Director, Commie High: The Film
THE PROJECT AND GOALS
With your support in reaching our $45,000 goal, we will produce a 20-30 minute documentary to share the compelling story of Commie High. The film will focus on the first 30 years, the factors that led hundreds of people to camp out for weeks with the hope of enrolling, and where Community High stands today in the pantheon of public education. We will share significant cultural finds by mining myriad Commie High archives. We will assemble an all-star CHS soundtrack encompassing a diverse range of musical styles. And we will give new life to art works by CHS alumni through animation and motion graphics. Commie High: The Film (working title) will be professionally produced to broadcast quality by an experienced team, while drawing creative inspiration from the alternative, artistically expressive ethos of the school. Distribution outlets will focus on film festivals, public television, online platforms and educational organizations.
JUST ADDED - $55,000 STRETCH GOAL WITH A DONOR MATCH! An anonymous backer and CHS alum has generously offered to match all dollars added into Kickstarter above our film production goal until we reach our $55,000 stretch goal! Your additional support will go toward educational opportunities for Community High students to get directly involved in this project during the upcoming school year. Working with the film's team through CHS's CR (Community Resources) program, students will be able to earn credit as they participate in various aspects of the documentary. The CR program is a core piece of the Community High model, in place since the start of the school in 1972, and provides educational experiences outside of the conventional classroom setting. Additional workshops may be provided at CHS with opportunities for students to get hands-on experiences working on this documentary project.
Our budget is based on a professional approach, whether we’re funded to produce a half-hour or feature documentary. Our production crew has a combined 25 years of film industry experience and have produced more than 30 videos together through 7 Cylinders Studio. We possesses all necessary equipment, software and skills to create a compelling, broadcast-quality documentary. This project’s primary expenses include: in-depth research, the collection, management and digital transfer of archival material, license fees and commissions for artists (e.g., musicians, animators), several dozen location video recordings, extensive editing, post-production mastering and distribution outreach.
If successfully funded, pre-production will continue spring/summer 2016 with principal production taking place September 2016 through June 2017; post-production will run through summer 2017. We anticipate having a completed film in fall 2017.
Research interviews conducted so far have included Kelly Stupple & Trevor Staples (classes of '87 and '85), Davy Rothbart (class of '92), Maisie Wilhelm (class of '00), Mike Mouradian (teacher from 1975-2006), David Klingenberger (CHS '94 - '97), Linda Diane Feldt (class of '76), Ingrid Racine (Music Director of Commie High: The Film, class of '00), current CHS student Maggie Mihaylova, Chris Tabaczka (class of '76), Dr. Jay Sandweiss (Executive Producer of Commie High: The Film). Many alumni across generations of CHS have expressed enthusiasm for participating in this project by sharing stories, photos, film/video, letters, art work and their time with interviews.
Donald Harrison - Producer/Director/Camera
Since 2001, Donald has immersed himself in colliding worlds of independent filmmaking, non-profit arts management, media education and interactive video projects. He’s Lead Producer and Founder of 7 Cylinders Studio based in Ypsilanti, MI, involved in all aspects of production, strategy and outreach. He’s taught film & video courses at the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and The Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor. Donald served as Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival from 2008 – 2012, guiding the organization through its historic 50th season and bringing film workshops to more than 15 public schools throughout the Ann Arbor area. He worked and studied at Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco (2001-2006) and received a bachelor of arts in social psychology from the University of Michigan (1995). Donald has served on the board of directors for the Michigan Theater and Arts Alliance of Ann Arbor and currently serves on the Cultural Economic Development Committee for the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation.
David Camlin - Co-Producer/Editor
Raised and educated along the coast of Maine, David Camlin eventually settled in Portland (2008) where he produced and edited independent documentaries that were screened in regional theaters and on the television stations of Maine Public Broadcasting Network. Professionally, he was contracted to produce and edit work for clients that included art museums and galleries, music producers and Outside Television, a nationally syndicated cable TV network. As a graduate of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine (2007), David returned to his alma mater in 2011 as a visiting instructor to lead a team of advanced video production students. The resulting half hour program was the first COA student production to be broadcast as a part of MPBN’s Community Film series. After relocating to Michigan in 2012, David joined 7 Cylinders Studio as a Producer and Lead Editor and has been improving his bowling average while continuing to create what he hopes is compelling and meaningful content.
Ingrid Racine - Music Director/Composer
Trumpeter and composer Ingrid Racine was deeply entrenched in the Commie High music scene from 1996-2000, as a student in Mike Grace's esteemed jazz program, in various punk, ska and Oi! bands, and as a head Commstock organizer. After graduation, she pursued a BFA in Jazz Studies at the University of Michigan and subsequently began a free lance career, playing everything from early jazz to free improvised music to hip hop, including numerous tours with the post-afrobeat band NOMO. In 2007, Ingrid returned to University of Michigan to study with Professor Geri Allen, while completing a Masters Degree in Improvisation. During her graduate work she received grant funding to study music in Bamako, Mali and Mysore, India, where she deepened her concept of both improvisation and composition. She currently lives in Ann Arbor, MI and recently released her first record as a bandleader, "Concentric Circles."
Jay Sandweiss, D.O. - Executive Producer
Jay moved to Ann Arbor in 1971 where he attended the University of Michigan. He has taught health related courses nationally and internationally since 1979. He's a 6th degree black belt in karate and assisted teaching martial arts at Community High School 1975 - 1977. He opened his private practice as an osteopathic physician in downtown Ann Arbor in 1989 and has treated thousands of patients throughout the Ann Arbor community. Jay (aka, Dr. J.) is board certified by the American Ostepathic Assocation and American Board of Medical Acupuncture. He's performed as an actor in the Burns Park Players theater group for more than 10 years and is the proud father of a 2014 CHS graduate.
Kelly Stupple (CHS class of 1987)
Ken McGraw (CHS teacher since 1997)
Sebastian Wreford (aka, Nitro von Borax - CHS class of 1983)
Mike Mouradian (CHS teacher 1975 - 2006)
Linda Diane Feldt (CHS class of 1976)
Davy Rothbart (class of 1992)
Sara Nodjoumi (filmmaker, The Iran Job)
Katherine Weider-Roos (media professional, Roos Roast Coffee)
Risks and challenges
Kickstarter is all or nothing so we need to reach our goal of $45,000 by April 13th in order to receive any of the pledged funds to make this film. Your credit card will not be charged unless we receive $45,000 or more by 10:14AM on April 13, 2016. If you have problems with the payment system here or have questions about making a tax deductible contribution, please email us at email@example.comLearn about accountability on Kickstarter
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