10 Documentaries to Get You Ready for the First Day Back to School

Spotlighting student life and the education system.

school documentaries

Depending on where you live, you or your children may have already started the new school year. Others are heading back this week or next. In many ways, every kid’s educational experience and opportunity is unique. Maybe they’re a great student, maybe not. Maybe the school they go to is what’s not great. Maybe they are involved with competitive extra-curricular activities like basketball or chess. Perhaps they’re the victim of bullying or could use some shaping up or require better teachers, coaches and other authority figures.

Documentaries have covered what seems to be the gamut of school experiences, and while that’s probably not true, I’ve narrowed down 10 films that I think best represent the good and bad about student life and the education system. I went not necessarily with issue films to make you more informed about today’s school problems, preferring instead great stories that may or may not involve such problems, though of course many may have an effect on how you view your or your child’s hours in the classroom.

High School (Frederick Wiseman, 1968)

Not a lot has fundamentally changed about high school life in the 45 years since this film was made. Wiseman takes his faux fly on the wall style into Philadelphia’s Northeast High School to observe students, teachers and administrators. It’s the one Wiseman I’ve seen where I’m most curious about the camera presence effect on the characters. Both kids and adults have good reason to perform to some degree for Wiseman’s lens, though I think it’s the adults who put on more of a show.

Hoop Dreams (Steve James, 1994)

Arguably the Citizen Kane of documentaries (whatever that may mean to you), this highly engaging film follows two boys from Chicago as they strive to become professional basketball players. Both are recruited to a high school out in the suburbs where they’ll get a better education as well as be a part of a better athletic program. Over the course of almost three hours, you get to know these teens better than most movie characters, fiction or nonfiction, becoming emotionally invested in their successes and failures.

The Lottery (Madeleine Sackler, 2010)

Waiting for Superman may have had the more prominent names attached (director Davis Guggenheim; Participant Media) and the better theatrical distribution (Paramount Vantage), but this is the better doc on the topic of charter schools. Again, the key here is a human interest angle with specific characters we become emotionally interested in. There are data figures and an angle and all that still, but it doesn’t feel as much like an issue film, as in the sort that’s more about selling a message than telling a story.

Brooklyn Castle (Katie Dellamaggiore, 2012)

This would already be a good movie if it was simply about a champion middle school chess team. The characters are tremendously endearing and the stakes are significant for them to succeed at not just the board game but also at overcoming self-esteem and family and other personal issues. Then on top of that is the issue of school budgets and the dwindling funding for extracurricular after-school programs like the chess team at Brooklyn’s I.S. 318.

Seven Up! (Paul Almond, 1964)

The short film that started the whole Up series, which Michael Apted has taken through the recently released 56 Up. Apted was a researcher on this original, produced for Granada Television, a look at more than a dozen seven-year-olds from around Britain. One of the main focal points of this and the next few installments is the varying kinds of education the kids receive depending on their location and social status. From the strict and the proper to the less formal classroom of Tony and his girlfriend, it’s fun to decide which school you’d have most liked to attend — especially before you know how everybody turns out.

Bully (Lee Hirsch, 2011)

I don’t love this movie (mainly I think it misses out by not including more on the very relevant cyber-bullying, for which you should seek out the Frontline episode “Digital_Nation”), but there are some parts that have really stuck with me, notably the way one particular assistant principal deals with bullying. I’ve never thought more about the idea of sending my kid off to be looked after by strangers.

Boys of Baraka (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2005)

In this film we follow four boys among twenty troubled teenagers selected from the city of Baltimore to attend a boarding school in Baraka, Kenya, for two years. There, they are given more attention and as far as we can tell from what we’re shown, they improve and mature as both young men and students. It’s another doc I have problems with, finding the filmmakers’ own attention to the boys deficient, but the concentration given to the school itself has its own value. Also, it’s interesting to see the early work of Ewing and Grady, who have grown to become much more trusted for their ability to mix deeply compelling stories involving some issue or another. Also recommended is their segment on grade-based incentives in Freakonomics.

Streetwise (Martin Bell, 1984)

I’m pretty certain there’s not a school to be seen in this underrated Oscar nominee about homeless youth in Seattle. And that’s the point of including it. The film follows a few teens and preteens, mostly runaways, around the streets of the city, hustling and begging and just getting by. There are some tragic results, and maybe that’s a good reason for this feature to be shown to kids, as a way of scaring them straight. Speaking of which, Scared Straight! is another Oscar-nominated doc worth watching ahead of the new school year.

American Teacher (Vanessa Roth and Brian McGinn, 2011)

Oscar-winner Roth puts a handful of teachers on a pedestal in this affecting doc that depressed the heck out of me. The issues of the education system as it pertains to teachers salaries, unions, value, etc., is more complex than how this film addresses them, but with all that complexity and how abstract it all becomes through most coverage of the problems, it’s nice to just think about those teachers who are worth more money and respect. It’s made me both hopeful and worried about the quality of my own children’s future educators.

Head Games (Steve James, 2012)

I wanted to include one more doc on school athletics, and I probably could have picked Undefeated or Go Tigers! (which I haven’t actually seen) or The Heart of the Game (which I haven’t seen either) or Prayer for a Perfect Season, but I’m going again with James and his most recent film, which isn’t even focused at all on sports in schools. Yet it does have an element tied to the education system, which I consider more imperative than anything you see in Bully. More alarming, though, than the stuff on schools’ focus on athletics and on which youth sports are most dangerous as far as concussions are concerned, are the parental characters who come off as powerless opposite their sports-loving kids.

This list was originally published on August 27, 2013.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.