Those who had seen the film told me to bring my handkerchiefs and prepare to shed some tears. Truer words were never spoken. Throughout the film we become acquainted with five young students, all but one hailing from poor urban school districts. They and their parents are pinning their hopes on winning a lottery to secure a coveted spot in the charter school of their choice. (Charter schools are required by law to accept students on a first-come-first-serve basis and address any overflow with a lottery.) They are:
- Francisco – a Bronx first grader who has already been denied at six Bronx charter schools.
- Emily – a girl from Silicon Valley who has good local school options but wants to go to a school where she will not be tracked.
- Anthony – a DC fifth grader who lost his dad to drugs, never knew his mother, is being raised by his grandmother, and wants to go to SEED, a charter boarding school in SE DC. (I’ve visited it. Impressive place.)
- Bianca – a Harlem kindergartener who is one of 767 children vying for 35 spots at Harlem Success Academy.
- Daisy – a 5th grader from East L.A. who is one of 135 applicants applying for 10 spots at KIPP L.A. (I fell in love with this kid!)
The film repeatedly returns to these kids and their families as the audience joins them in anxiously awaiting their fate. The suspense builds until selection day brings the ultimate anxiety of anticipation as the numbers are drawn and the names called out over the PA system in an atmosphere that brings to mind a huge bingo parlor. We pull for these kids, and some of the outcomes are absolutely heart wrenching, particularly when we realize that we have reduced the hopes of some very good kids down to the simple spin of a roulette wheel. How could this happen in a country that prides itself upon the notion that each of us has a horizon limited only by our own levels of motivation?