Students at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., in a scene from “Welcome to Commie High.” Photo courtesy of Donald Harrison/7 Cylinders Studio

The documentary “Welcome To Commie High” is a feel-good success story centered on American public education, something you don’t hear often enough these days. Tracing the birth and growth of Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Community High School from its early 1970s inception as one of a raft of alternative “new schools,” through to its current place as one of the most coveted-after public high schools in the country, “Welcome To Commie High” is also a deeply personal appeal from educators, parents, and past and present students of this unconventional, publicly funded school for people to let go of a whole lot of stereotypes, both about its students and how they’re taught. 

The “Commie High” nickname is a bit of moniker re-appropriation, as the film – screening through PMA Films starting on Friday – shows how this 500-student magnet school’s history has been dogged by all-too-predictable controversy. Some of that comes from the school’s unconventional curriculum, focus on experiential learning in the greater community, flexibility of study, and emphasis on humanistic, individually catered learning, all leading to constant conservative backlash. And some of it comes from the school’s admittedly more free-spirited and unstructured origins. “The early schools couldn’t get past being ‘hippie schools,’ ” says one longtime administrator late in the film. (“Welcome To Commie High” does smack of boosterism at times, the segment addressing the fact of the nascent school’s lack of sexual boundaries in its first few years glossed over a bit glibly.) 

A class at Community High School. Photo courtesy of Donald Harrison/7 Cylinders Studio

Nowadays, however, Community High School is presented as pretty much the ideal outcome for every educator, parent, or student’s dreams of creating a truly student-based, non-traditional institute of learning. Its test scores, college acceptance rates and illustrious alumni (including NPR’s Neda Ulaby and Found Magazine founder Davy Rothbart, coincidentally subject of one of this column’s first-ever stories) all testify to the efficacy of its unusual program. The film rings with the enthusiastic and outspoken words and deeds of its current crop of enrollees, who are shown engaged in everything from a first-ever student-led political action committee dedicated to winning local school board races to banding together to fight ICE’s Trump-era attempt to try to deport one student’s immigrant father to the multifaceted artistic triumphs of a senior named Clarence, a jazz and theater star who I can safely predict you’ll be hearing from. 

Testament to this is the annual enrollment lottery (only one in four hopefuls is admitted), which took the place of the often weeks-long campouts some families engaged in in order to secure a place. Learning is growing and changing, and “Welcome To Commie High” delves at length behind the controversial change, ultimately settled by the school’s long-serving, husky voiced dean deciding, finally, that the lack of diversity at Community could be traced to the fact that only families who could afford to spend weeks camping (or hiring people to camp) were getting in. The film follows one former Community student’s stressful wait to find out if her own teenage daughter will be admitted to her alma mater. 

In the end, “Welcome To Commie High” is a testament to flexibility and dedication, on the part of literally everyone involved. A story: I taught in a Maine alternative school for seven wonderful, terrible, heartbreaking, life-changing years. Unlike Community, it didn’t have public funding (as fraught as Community’s fights with bureaucracy continually are), subsisting on a low-as-possible tuition and staff willing to work for laughably little (seriously, I got laughed at by many a potential teacher) in the hopes that the greater world would see the spark of necessary innovation and educational safe haven we were offering. And that we believed in so dearly. The school struggled along, and then it died. 

So when an administrator here speaks feelingly of the growing pains that saw Community High’s evolving mission to provide a place where those kids ill-served by traditional educational systems could thrive, my heart hurt in recognition. Some kids aren’t suited to the strictly standardized system of learning we’ve settled upon as a society. And, instead of examining how that system’s rigidity isn’t perfect for every kid, some kids are thrown away, told that they’re broken. That they’re the one who’s wrong. That’s just how it is. The Community School, for all its imperfections, at least offers, as one of its core principles, the willingness to admit that to its students and adjust to their needs. And that, ultimately, in “Welcome To Commie High,” is triumphant. Suiting its hungry, questioning mass of adolescent protagonists, it’s a messy, and chaotic triumph, but triumphant nonetheless. 

You can rent “Welcome To Commie High” starting Friday at PMA Films. The film’s director Donald Harrison, Portland-based co-producer and editor David Camlin, and various CHS staff and students (including Neda Ulaby) will also present some more insight into the film, and the school. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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