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Every community in America has a school with a reputation of "where the bad kids go," according to documentary filmmaker Keith Fulton, and in California's Morongo Unified School District that school is Black Rock High School.
The alternative school, for 11th- and 12th-graders, serves a population of students who are often struggling academically and living in households with poverty, drug use and neglect.
But in Fulton's new film premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, "The Bad Kids," which he co-directed with Lou Pepe, students at Black Rock are shown as hopeful and determined, inching closer to graduation with the help of a caring faculty and the encouragement of their classmates.
"We were just completely stunned by the environment of that place," Fulton said.
Pepe attributes the school's environment to the "revolutionary" approach of Principal Vonda Viland, who in the film is shown making early-morning wake-up calls and offering rides to students, as well as greeting the school's buses at the curb.
Compared with the costly education reforms in vogue throughout the country, Viland's personal involvement in her students' lives is time-consuming but essentially free, Pepe said. And for many students who would otherwise be dismissed as "bad kids," the relentless support of a caring adult is the difference between success and failure.
"They get labeled and that's it, we file them away in a category and we don't think about what happens to them," Pepe said of underachieving students. "These kids are amazing, beautiful, hopeful young people who have a lot of potential if we don't relegate them to the dustbin, and unfortunately that's what happens to a lot of them."
The documentary is not the only one at Sundance this year looking at a new, empathetic approach to underachieving students and at-risk children.
Returning to the festival is James Redford with the documentary "Resilience," a follow-up to the director's "Paper Tigers" and an exploration of new techniques in education, juvenile justice and child therapy to disrupt cycles of violence and addiction.
Redford, son of Sundance founder Robert Redford, said "Resilience" and "Paper Tigers" stem from the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, conducted in the late 1990s by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente.
The study found that health problems, behavior and cognitive impairment through a person's life and into adulthood can stem from early exposure to abuse, violence and mental illness.
In the education community, the research has prompted a growing trend that relies on dialogue to assess bad behavior, rather than rush to punitive measures like suspensions and expulsions.
"The majority of kids who are acting out, they're floating icebergs," Redford said. "Everything else is going on under the surface."
The thinking, he said, is that trials in a student's home life or past are transported to the classroom, where students benefit more from a caring and consistent adult than a procedural slap on the wrist.
"Very often the most likely and the easiest person to be that one caring adult is a teacher," Redford said, "because very often the family life for kids who have been in these situations is either completely absent or broken beyond repair."
Fulton and Pepe spent two years at Black Rock High School and were given extensive access into the lives of students and their interactions with faculty.
The film, by design, avoids the talking-head interviews and statistics common in documentaries, instead opting for fly-on-the-wall observation of life at the school.
"There's no facts and figures in this," Pepe said. "It's purely an emotional experience of watching people's lives unfold."
Throughout "The Bad Kids," students talk openly about their challenges, from absent parents to drug use, and their hopes after high school.
They don't all receive a diploma by the time the credits roll, but Fulton said it was important to acknowledge the gains that stem from a nurturing educational environment, and that some circumstances are too difficult to be solved by a single accomplishment.
"A small application of love and caring and building [students'] confidence can have a ripple effect on the rest of their lives," he said, "no matter what they end up doing."
Redford said a shift in school cultures can take time, as classrooms are perpetually besieged by competing agendas to "fix" children.
And the science behind adverse childhood experiences challenges traditional American notions of grit and hard work.
But many families, he said, are unaware of the cycles they are trapped in, and the outside efforts of teachers, therapists and social workers can help to break chains of abuse and poverty.
"True resilience is not a matter of character or moral fiber," Redford said. "It's about finding the right ingredients to be successful in life."
Education at Sundance
"The Bad Kids" (U.S. Documentary Competition) • Screens Friday, 3:30 p.m., Temple Theatre, Park City; Saturday, 8:30 a.m., Egyptian Theatre, Park City; Saturday, 9:30 p.m., Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Salt Lake City; Tuesday, noon, Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room; Wednesday, 3 p.m., Library Center Theatre, Park City; and Friday, 9:30 p.m., Redstone Cinema 1, Park City.
"Resilience" (Documentary Premieres) • Screens Tuesday, noon, Library Center Theatre, Park City; Wednesday, 8:30 p.m., The MARC, Park City; Saturday, 6 p.m., Broadway Centre Cinema 6, Salt Lake City; and Sunday, Jan. 31, 10 a.m., Holiday Village Cinema 1, Park City.
The 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Where • Park City and venues in Salt Lake City, Ogden and the Sundance resort
When • Through Jan. 31
Tickets • $20 per screening. Box offices are in the Gateway Center, 136 Heber Ave., Park City, and in Trolley Square, 600 East and 600 South, Salt Lake City.
Wait-list information • Register at ewaitlist.sundance.org and download the app to your smartphone or tablet; waitlist tickets are $20, cash only.
Program guide • sundance.org/festivals/sundance-film-festival
All the news • Keep up with the Salt Lake Tribune's full Sundance coverage at sltrib.com/entertainment/sundance