Whatever It Takes is an award-winning documentary about the first year of operation of the Bronx Centre for Science & Mathematics.
Bronx Centre is a special high school located in “the nation’s poorest district” – the South Bronx. It is one of many small schools in the area, organized as part of a New York City initiative to do something about the state of the public schools.
At the centre of the story is the rookie principal, Edward Tom. Tom is a business grad who was thriving in the fashion business when he realized his work was not very fulfilling. The father of three told his wife that the only part of the work week he looked forward to was teaching Sunday School, and the idea of teaching school full time grew from that. Tom is a zealot when it comes to children and education; he is exactly the sort of school leader every parent wants for his or her children. His ambition is to get these dead-ended kids to university.
Whatever It Takes unfolds over the school year. Events are told through four main perspectives: One is Mr. Tom’s; one is that of a promising student, Sherifea Baskerville; another voice belongs to Madeline Rios, a social worker who grew up in the neighbourhood; and the fourth is science teacher Erica Balogh.
Ms. Balogh is a new teacher, hugely enthusiastic and ready to do anything for her students. The film shows how quickly the work atmosphere and various challenges from the kids can burn out the most dedicated educator.
The most arresting person in the movie is Sherifea, a very bright girl whose mom is a recovering addict. Sherifea and her brother spent part of their childhood in a foster home while Mom sought treatment. Halfway through the school year, despite acceptance at a special summer program at Dartmouth, Sherifea starts failing all her subjects. It is unimaginable that a child this smart and energetic could somehow get left behind, but the movie shows just how easily that can happen.
Luckily, Sherifea has the redoubtable Mr. Tom on her side.
Whatever It Takes is an inspiring film, to be sure, but it is difficult for the cynical to feel particularly hopeful or impressed. How many Mr. Toms are there to go around?