GW Student Documentary Uncovers Stories of High School Drop-Outs

“Doing it for Me” awarded best documentary short prize at D.C.’s Reel Independent Film Extravaganza.

Leah Edwards
School of Media and Public Affairs senior Leah Edwards became an award-winning filmmaker in October, when "Doing it for Me," a movie she co-directed, won the prize for best documentary short at the REEL independent Film Extravaganza.
November 03, 2014

By Brittney Dunkins

Nearly 10 years after former President George W. Bush declared that there would be “No Child Left Behind,” D.C. high school student Precious Lambert decided to transform from an “F” student to an “A” student—just as her two best friends Victoria Williams and Jessica Greene dropped out.

In 2013, their journey to completing secondary education became the basis of the documentary “Doing it for Me,” directed by Ms. Lambert and George Washington University student Leah Edwards through an education program at the Sitar Arts Center in Adams Morgan.

The film took home the best documentary short prize at the REEL Independent Film Extravaganza in October.

“We wanted to work on a film that inspired people and that touched the community,” said Ms. Edwards, a D.C. native and senior in the School of Media and Public Affairs and Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. “We were so moved by Precious’ story that we voted unanimously to make this documentary.”

The Sitar Arts Center—a community organization serving youth from low and middle-income families—partnered with Meridian Hill Pictures to develop the 25- minute documentary with support from ArtWorks and the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

Through interviews, Ms. Greene and Ms. Williams revealed that growing disinterest in classwork, uninspiring teachers and family members without high school diplomas influenced their decisions to withdraw from school. Ms. Greene, who found it hard to concentrate in a classroom with 40 students, said she didn’t feel safe after hearing gunshots outside of her high school.

“I just had the idea in my head that school wasn’t for me,” Ms. Williams says early in the film.

With support from Ms. Lambert, Ms. Williams and Ms. Greene eventually enrolled in high school equivalency programs— Potomac Job Corps and Next Step Public Charter School.  The hopeful narrative ends with Ms. Lambert earning the number six spot in her graduating class at Spingarn Senior High School.

Stars of the film Victoria Williams and Jessica Greene pose for a photo with Precious Lambert after she recieved her diploma. Both Ms. Williams and Ms. Greene were inspired by Ms. Lambert to pursue alternative routes to earning a secondary education after dropping out of high school. 

Since the film’s premiere in September 2013, it has been screened at six film festivals in the mid-Atlantic region, West End Cinema and the U.S. Department of Education’s D.C. headquarters. In the process, Ms. Lambert has become an advocate for students who struggle with whether to withdraw from school. She was a featured speaker at [email protected] last May.

“Even though it wasn’t Hollywood—it was better. This experience has been a way for me to work with the community in a hands-on, grassroots way,” Ms. Edwards said. “Programs like this allow you to change the world and find your voice and share with people—that’s what it did for me.”

During a moderated panel at the U.S. Department of Education last month, Ms. Edwards recommended that policymakers see students with value rather than numbers when they look at statistics.

“Working with Precious and seeing her take a mentorship role with Victoria and Jessica was inspiring,” Ms. Edwards said. “You don’t often see students telling their friends to stay in school. It helped me remember my struggles in high school, and how that mentorship role is so important.”

The film comes at a unique moment in the conversation around U.S. high school graduation rates. Though rates have improved nationally—partially bolstered by an increase in the number of states with a compulsory school attendance age of 18— D.C. has lagged behind most states.

According to data released in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Education, only 59 percent of D.C. high school students graduated in 2010 and 2011, a sharp contrast to the national average of 80 percent.  

The film’s message—that students who drop out can still find a path to success—is an indication that reform is still necessary, according to Ms. Edwards.

Ms. Edwards, who began taking classes at Sitar Arts Center when she was in high school, said that filmmaking has guided her academic and career path. She believes the arts can have a positive impact on the lives of all students.

“I’ve become a better filmmaker by teaching students and working on this project,” Ms. Edwards said. “Documentaries are amazing because they help people become more open to different worlds and different stories so that they can grow and discover new things about themselves.”