As the film opens, it’s the last day of school at the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a new charter school in northwest Detroit. It’s Aug. 3, 2012 – late in the summer, since JRLA has a year-round schedule – and students and staff have gathered for an end-of-year picnic. School founder Jalen Rose hands out awards to two students who had perfect attendance. The school was in session 211 days and these two students were there for all 211.
We then get an overview of what this school actually is – a publicly funded charter school. The scene may look familiar but the school itself is quite different. We go back to 1994, the year that Jalen Rose was a junior basketball player at the University of Michigan. We get a short history lesson about how charter schools came to be in Michigan: How the Legislature passed the law in a late-night session on Christmas Eve, 1993. How Gov. John Engler signed the charter school law on Jan. 14, 1994. How two decades later, Jalen Rose would use John Engler’s legislation to make a difference in a different arena. Rose (and others) tell the story of how the school came to be: How they worked with Central Michigan to get the school authorized. How they struggled to find a facility. How they worked with MAPSA to navigate the process.
We then meet a Detroit family that has been struggling to find the right school for their daughter. Irving and Tanisha Bailey are proud graduates of the Detroit Public Schools and their daughter, Unique, has been attending a DPS school since kindergarten. But as she enters high school, they’re frustrated with the situation in DPS – overcrowded classrooms, violence, chaos. They want more for Unique. Irving Bailey sees a TV report about JRLA and he decides to check it out. They love everything about the school so they decide to enroll Unique. That’s when they find out it won’t be as easy as all that. In order to get Unique into this school, they’ll literally have to win the lottery. There are only 120 spots available and more than 130 students are vying for those spots. We see dramatic footage of the lottery itself. With the Baileys sitting in the front row, the officials start pulling names. Fifty names are called, then 60, then 70. Then 100. Unique’s name still hasn’t been called. With only a few spots left, Unique’s name is finally called. Her mother jumps up and starts shouting, and then hugging everyone in sight – including Jalen. You’ve never seen a happier mother at a charter school lottery.
Now we come to the first day of school, Sept. 12, 2011. As the 120 new students gather in the auditorium for an assembly, Jalen speaks to the students and sets the tone for the new school. As he sees two students talking and joking during his speech, he pulls one of the terrified boys out of the audience and makes him come on stage. “Read this,” Jalen says. It’s a statistic listing how many ninth graders in Detroit aren’t at grade level for math. “Ninety percent,” the boy mumbles. “Say it louder,” Jalen says. “Ninety percent! That’s how many of you aren’t prepared for ninth grade in math. We’ve got work to do.” The message has been delivered, and the tone for the new school is set.
As the year goes on, we see scenes of other charter school life: Saturday school. On a rainy day in March, when other kids across Detroit are home watching TV, the students at JRLA are in school. We see Unique present a report in history class about the Holocaust. A board meeting. We see Jalen chairing a meeting of the JRLA School Board as they discuss budget and other matters. Ed Roth of CMU sits in the front row as part of the authorizer oversight process.
The second school lottery. As the 2012-13 school year approaches, a lottery has to be held to fill one opening in the school’s 10th grade class. Another very dramatic lottery scene, with another very happy mother. School in the summer. We visit the school on a blistering hot summer day in July 2012. As other kids across Detroit are at the pool or hanging out, the students at JRLA are in school. Unique and a partner are working on a children’s book about math.
We come back to the last day of school – where the documentary started. Unique’s mom expresses great joy at the academic growth Unique has experienced. Unique says that summer school wasn’t fun but she knows it was good for her. Just before the ending credits roll, we learn that Unique was one of 12 students to end the school year with a perfect 4.0 GPA. And as she gets ready to start her sophomore year, she’s been elected vice president of the Student Council.