In today’s post, Phil Stegink reviews Who Cares About Kelsey?, an eye-opening film that raises questions about school practices and strategies that create a supportive school environment.
In the documentary, filmmaker Dan Habib (director of Including Samuel) confronts a challenging and critically important issue facing students, families, and schools: supporting students with emotional and behavioral challenges. In this film, Habib tells the story of Kelsey, a high school student who is significantly at risk for dropping out of school and becoming, in her words, “… a screw up like my brothers and sisters.”
Through this video, Habib confronts the real difficulty of supporting students who, like Kelsey, have difficulty regulating their emotions and modulating their behavior. He shows the raw pain of isolation, abuse, and self-mutilation. In this story, we meet committed school staff who seek to reach Kelsey and we learn about Kelsey’s family, who want the best for her, but who do not know how to consistently support her. The story ends with Kelsey’s graduation from high school and her finding a powerful purpose to move forward with her life.
Who is Kelsey?
Who Cares About Kelsey? opens by introducing us to the players in her story: Kelsey, who lives with her dad and stepmother; her dad; her mother; her siblings; and, her boyfriend, who is four years her elder. Though we don’t know this until the end of the film, if Kelsey graduates from high school, she will be the first one from her family to do so.
The story begins when Kelsey is a senior in her fifth year of school. She was retained during her middle school years, and reports that she was diagnosed with ADHD in 4th grade,. Kelsey says she is a “… mean person …,” supposing that she is “mentally disabled,” but “… not really disabled. You know?” Teachers and support staff of Kelsey’s high school report that she is, among other things, “… stubborn, obstinate, mature, immature, and a champion of the underdog.” Kelsey says that she usually wins arguments, because she has the “… ultimate meanness.”
Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports
During Kelsey’s first year of high school, the administration decided on a very intentional effort to change the trajectory of graduation percentages. They implemented a program known as Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS), designed as a school-wide approach to creating a safe school culture. The goal of this program is to reduce the dropout rate for all students, particularly those who are at significant risk of dropping out. Empowerment, rather than control, is an essential element of this program. At Kelsey’s school, this program was known as “RENEW.”
A team of school staff, including teachers, administrators, and support professionals was created to envelope Kelsey in order to support her throughout her high school career. The RENEW team began with and returned often to visioning and goal setting with Kelsey. As is true for many students who struggle with emotions and behavior in school, Kelsey’s vision of self was grounded on her personal definition as “mean,” which led her to view her future as short term. Before she began to give voice to personal dreams in the context of the RENEW team, her vision for self centered on dropping out of school and finding a job. Through supportive planning and visioning with the RENEW team, Kelsey came to articulate hopes and dreams that including having a home, having an intact family, having kids, and having a job that would fulfill her desire to help others.
The Journey Forward
Throughout Kelsey’s story we journey through the ups and downs of her holding and molding a vision that evolves from the “mean girl” persona, to a time when Kelsey is able to accept the reality that it is OK to seek and accept support from others. This isn’t a smooth, forward motion journey, however; steps forward are balanced with steps backward. Finally, after ups and downs, Kelsey passes a final exam for an Emergency Medical Technologist course, which allows her to graduate; the first person from her family to do so.The film ends a year later with Kelsey returning to her high school to speak with students who are participating in the same program from which she received support.
This documentary is not an easy movie to watch. It is not a simple how-to video. Though it ends well, it is not a feel good film. Habib and his associates explore the painful life in which many students live. The filmmakers do not presuppose a positive outcome, though by the end Kelsey has made great progress to managing her challenges and in letting down the walls that formed her boundaries for many years. Throughout the film, the viewer wonders, however, whether or how she can possibly “make it.” There are times when the film brings the viewer to the edge of despair as Kelsey struggles mightily with who she is and what she will be. The producers do not expunge harsh language used by Kelsey as she confronts challenges and speaks out her frustrations. If harsh language is upsetting, I suggest a viewer activate the “bleep” function in the DVD settings.
I think this film is targeted to schools that struggle with high dropout rates for emotionally at-risk students and that are looking for ways to include successfully those students in a positive learning community. The content of the film can be used to stimulate discussion about what faculty and staff believe about school culture and climate. Questions will emerge regarding practices intended to promote positive school culture and strategies used to manage students. The producers of Who Cares About Kelsey? partnered with a variety of educators to prepare discussion guides that should be useful to guide school development teams. I recommend this film to schools interested in implementing PBIS for students who bring challenging behavior to school.
Later this week, I’ll share strategies schools and educators can take to help students with challenging behavior and create a positive and supportive school community.
Phil Stegink is the director of educational services at CLC Network and an assistant professor of education at Calvin College.