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During a scene in the documentary film "In Loco Parentis," a man, John Leyden, sits in a cluttered room and reacts to a growing commotion outside.

"I don't like the sound of that," he says. "Sounds like children."

He's right, as John Leyden and his wife, Amanda Leyden, are two of the longest-serving teachers at Headfort School, the only boarding school for elementary-aged children in Ireland.

That his response to noisy children sounds more like an exhausted parent than an educator is no accident, according to the film's directors.

"In Loco Parentis" is a Latin phrase meaning "in the place of a parent," and directors Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane said that after two years filming at Headfort, they came to see the Leydens and other faculty members as more than teachers.

"John and Amanda very much became surrogate parents for these children," Rane said.

The film, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, presents a unique and old-fashioned educational setting.

Students form an ad-hoc rock band and decorate a performance space with minimal direction by their instructor, John Leyden. And in Amanda Leyden's literature classroom, the pupils select from a makeshift library of printed tomes, with no cellphones or computer screens in sight.

During their spare time, the students build forts on the school's expansive grounds with minimal supervision.

"The kids were allowed to be children," Ní Chianáin said. "You see the joy that they get out of just hanging about in the trees."

While "In Loco Parentis" has its rock bands and tree forts, another Sundance documentary shows a group of students forming a community through dance.

"Step," a U.S. Documentary Competition entry about the inaugural graduating class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, follows a group of students who launched and perform in the school's Lethal Ladies step dance team.

It's the first feature film by director Amanda Lipitz, a Tony-Award winning Broadway producer, who said the documentary borrows from musical storytelling.

"In a great musical, characters cannot speak anymore so they sing to express their fears, their hopes, their dreams," she said, "and that's what these girls do with step."

Lipitz first visited the school to film a series of short project, she said, and members of the dance team encouraged her to document the Lethal Ladies.

She described the dance team as a mirror image of the school itself, with students taking the initiative and working hard to succeed at something they were passionate about.

"When you walk into any school in the United States of America, even the worst schools, there is hope," Lipitz said. "As a country we have to protect that joy in our students."

That hope was challenged, she said, by the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody and the ensuing protests throughout the city.

But when classes resumed that fall, she said, the young women at the center of her documentary were committed to seeing the year through.

"I think it strengthened the girls' resolve to tell the story and to show the world that they were not just what you saw on TV," she said.

Step dancing brought together students at the top of their classes and others who would likely have dropped out of school if not for the team, Lipitz said.

She said that kind of extracurricular, group activity is crucial to keeping children motivated and moving forward.

"Just something that excites them, that they can express themselves [through]," she said. "That they can turn whatever feelings they have and kind of channel it into this non-academic activity is crucial to success."

The directors of "In Loco Parentis" took a similar lesson from their time at Headfort.

Ní Chianáin and Rane attended boarding schools as children and said they were interested in exploring how that style of education operates in the 21st century.

They found dedicated and quirky characters, they said, and a poignant example of how educators are entrusted to care for children on their parents' behalf.

"We were really impressed how the focus was on the happiness of the children and the whole education, not just the academics," Ní Chianáin said. "If you invest in young people, if you create an environment where they're happy, they will thrive."

Twitter: @bjaminwood —

Learning at Sundance

"In Loco Parentis" (World Cinema Documentary) • Screens Friday, 8:30 p.m., at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City; Saturday, 9 p.m., Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City; Sunday, 7 p.m., Redstone Cinema 2 in Park City; Wednesday, 3 p.m., Temple Theatre in Park City; and Friday, Jan. 27, 9:15 a.m., Holiday Village Cinema 2 in Park City.

"Step" (U.S. Documentary) • Screens Saturday, 5:30 p.m., at the Prospector Square Theatre in Park City; Sunday, 8:30 a.m., Egyptian Theatre in Park City; Monday, 3 p.m., Broadway Centre Cinema 6 in Salt Lake City; Thursday, 5:30 p.m., Egyptian Theatre in Park City; and Saturday, Jan. 28, 12:15 p.m., Temple Theatre in Park City.

Meet the dancers • Utah families, led by Park City resident Cindy Levine, will be hosting several of the "Step" dancers, coaches, parents and chaperones from Baltimore during the festival, with parties, performances, a style session with Ghazaleh Semnani's GMOVE Athletica and even sledding on the agenda, all part of a sponsorship and donation effort organized by the film's backers, ImpactPartners/Gamechanger. In one community event, the "Step" students will lead a fund-raiser dance workshop on Sunday, 3 p.m., at The Shed at Promontory, 8758 N. Promontory Ranch Road, Park City. Donations are appreciated. How to Sundance

When • Thursday to Jan. 29

Where • Park City and venues in Salt Lake City and the Sundance resort in Provo Canyon.

Passes and ticket packages • On sale at sundance.org/festivals. Most are sold out, but some are still available.

Individual tickets • Tickets are $25 for the first half of the festival in Park City (Jan. 19-24), $20 for Salt Lake City screenings and for the second half in Park City (Jan. 25-29).

Information • sundance.org/festivals

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