In an impoverished community of the Mojave Desert, New Mexico is Black Rock High, a continuation school for students aged 16 or older who are at risk of never graduating. Unlike more traditional US schools, Black Rock believes that by putting stronger emphasis on life skills, they can turn the lives of at-risk kids around. The Bad Kids is a documentary that follows the inspiring teachers at Black Rock High and the students they strive to help.
The film primarily follows three students: Lee Bridges, a student who struggles to support the son he shares with a fellow classmate; Jennifer Coffield, a teenage girl who has never found support from her family; and Joey McGee, a student who struggles with issues of drug abuse and home-life instability. At the heart of the school and the students’ journeys is principal Vonda Viland who dedicates her life to ensuring her students set off on the right path. The students who attend Black Rock High have often lived through childhoods filled with abuse, neglect, poverty, substance abuse and problems with the law. It’s the teachers’ incredible empathy that shines through the documentary as they approach their work with dedication and patience.
Vonda, the school’s principal, goes above and beyond her job description, calling her students who are at particular risk to not attend class to give them the extra nudge they need to get out of bed in the morning. As we watch Vonda mentor and counsel the three students at the heart of the film, we realise just how far her compassion, patience and dedication reaches. Her counselling sessions are often juxtaposed with the unjust home lives Lee, Jennifer and Joey face. In one particular scene, Vonda shares her own experiences to help Jennifer understand she needs to rise above the harmful opinions her father voices about her academic achievements. It’s through this sharing that Vonda is able to create a bond with her students and help them feel understood. The supportive and nurturing community at Black Rock High fosters an environment in which students feel comfortable confiding in teachers, peers or even the film crew.
Despite the teachers’ dedication to the students and the nurturing environment Black Rock High manages to create, not all three kids make it to graduation. The documentary is an honest look into how, no matter how dedicated an educator may be, it isn’t always possible to provide a solution for external struggles. The documentary and the inspiring teachers at Black Rock High also help provide a lesson for all educators.
Schools have many ‘invisible’ at-risk kids who choose to not speak up about their problems and The Bad Kids shows its audience how to pick up warning signs for students who may be in danger. The teachers at Black Rock High prove that amazing feats can be achieved with limited resources, and it’s this message which is most striking throughout the film. As one of the film’s directors puts it, ‘It doesn’t cost anything to listen to a student,’ and sometimes that makes all the difference.