“Each of us has an education story,” began Marc Smolowitz. “… and it’s heartbreaking when it doesn’t go well.” Smolowitz is an award-winning producer, director—and most importantly— film maker who has over two-and-a-half decades of experience across nearly every channel of entertainment and media. He has brought one of his latest projects in production, a film called, “The G Word” to the Puget Sound region. More precisely, to the Northshore School District. The film will bounce between rural, urban, and suburban settings across the United States showing what it means to be “gifted” and how these areas are—at best—evolving to provide students of varying backgrounds a more equitable education.
Smolowitz recently had the opportunity to interview five individuals from the Northshore School District. In addition, a crew from 13th Gen, Smolowitz’s San Francisco-based production company, filmed the State of the School District presentation at the end of February.
The Northshore School District has recently made changes to their HiCap (highly capable) program screening test. The gifted and HiCap programs coalesced in 2013 with the last six years or so offering much better training for educators to properly assess students. What was originally seen as a gifted program required students and their parents a very particular rigamarole to even qualify a student for advanced coursework. These students were predominately white. Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid, among others, began asking the question: what happens when every student, despite socio-economic background or race, has this kind of opportunity for greater success? The outcomes have been inspiring—especially in regards to under-represented students.
During the second annual State of School District at the end of February, Dr. Reid said, “In this unprecedented time in our country of a relentless focus on standardized testing, we have chosen to aspire to not be standard,” she continued, “I’ve never met a parent that celebrated their child for being standard.” When the NSD decided to focus on equity it did so out of a social commitment for excellence for all students. Due to an exponentially growing, expanding, and ethically diverse student body and society, the district aligned its practices to better fit its changing demographics. Now, 57.2% of the student population are white, 19% are Asian, 12.6% are Hispanic, 8.7% are two or more races, 3% are African-American, .3% are American Indian or Alaskan Native, and .2% are Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.
“Who gets to be in programs matters,” said Dr. Reid. The district has recently taken away fees for instruments which doubled their elementary participation in music programs. Dr. Reid went on to explain that in 2016, 1,200 students were in HiCap. Now, there are over 2,300 students reeling in the benefits of challenging and fitting course materials. Dr. Reid sees this as an opportunity to offer every student the keys to their educational kingdoms. “We’re removing systemic barriers to the opportunity of excellence,” said Dr. Reid. She then quoted American researcher and professor of social work Berné Brown when she said, “You can choose courage, or you can choose comfort but you can’t choose both.”
Smolowitz makes his film project decisions with a certain charming verve of personal satisfaction mixed with a meticulously studied understanding. “I choose projects I’m excited about… these movies can make a difference,” he said. Smolowitz believes that right now something daring is happening. If you screen more students for success, you’re going to find more students capable of success. “We’re really at a crossroads right now,” said Smolowitz. The opportunities, and ways kids are deemed special is changing.
“The G Word” will be in its filming stage through the summer before moving into a six-to-nine month editing process. Smolowitz is hoping for a 2020 release. Given his vast swath of success, it will likely make its way through the film festival circuit and, ideally, back to the Northshore School District for a screening.
Smolowitz hopes to catch a “beautiful national snapshot” of what it means to be “gifted” in a changing nation. “Capabilities belong to everyone; gifts may not,” he said. As if a gift is something given and not worked for but a capability something entirely, rightfully, earned.