Welcome to Commie High 2023
Distributed by Bullfrog Films, PO Box 149, Oley, PA 19547; 800-543-FROG (3764)
Produced by Donald Harrison
Directed by Donald Harrison
Streaming, 94 mins
High School - General Adult
Date Entered: 05/22/2023Reviewed by Casey Mazzoli, Early Career Development Resident, Otterbein University
Community High School in Ann Arbor, MI started in 1972 as part of the free school movement and is still operating as a highly sought-after magnet school. By chronicling student, teacher, and administrator experiences over the years, Welcome to Commie High invites viewers to ponder how alternative schooling has changed its shape while continuing to pursue its goals, mainly focusing on slice-of-life experiences within the school.
The tone of the documentary is distinctly celebratory. Except for a couple interviewees, all those featured in the film are present students, former students— many of whom became teachers or enrolled their own children at community— or long-time teachers and administrators who purport that the Community High School experience was the right one for them. Most criticism of the school is delivered secondhand through Community members’ accounts of outside commentary.
Watching members of Community grapple with the school’s history of abuse (teachers having romantic or sexual relationships with students) in its early days highlighted the surface-level approach the documentary takes toward its subject. It acknowledges certain shortcomings but leans into its interviewees’ deep commitment to the institution without fully examining the more difficult elements of this school’s story.
As a peek into the general student and instructor experience, the documentary doesn’t fail, but leaves a bit wanting. Community High School is founded on the “school without borders” idea that requires heavy community involvement from students. This only seems to be covered in a strong segment that shows the school newspaper’s coverage of the deportation hearing for a student’s father. The film otherwise does not turn itself outward from the school in quite the way its own students are intended to turn outward. And at many points, accounts of extracurriculars, school events, and community-building — while positive— feel like ephemera that could be pulled from a documentary about any well-resourced private or public school.
The distinguishing factor about Community is that it is public despite its "alternative" label and aims to equalize admissions via a lottery system, which was devised after the school experienced a burst in popularity in the 90s. One of the strongest elements of the documentary and the most explicit about the institution’s evolution was the coverage of the admissions process, which touched on inequalities in access to alternative schooling and the change in demand for such schools. Some comparison to similar schools might have helped paint a fuller picture of Community’s impact and the potential of public educational opportunities like Community’s. In addition, I would have appreciated commentary on how the school has adapted to increased standardization of public schools and college admissions standards.
Welcome to Commie High would be most useful as an anecdotal introduction to a different method of schooling. Paired with supplemental materials, the film could facilitate discussions about educational goals, administration, social-emotional learning, student engagement, educational ethics— you name it. However, I would’ve appreciated a more detailed look at the school in its social, political, and educational context. For general purposes, it’s a functional snapshot, but for educational purposes, it leaves many doors unopened.
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