Newark, N.J.’s John F. Kennedy High School and special-education needs teacher Janet Mino are the focus of the documentary “Best Kept Secret.”
The film makes its national broadcast debut at 9 p.m. Monday, Sept. 23 on PBS (check local listings) on the award-winning PBS series POV (Point of View) and will stream on POV’s website, www.pbs.org/pov/bestkeptsecret, from Sept. 24 – Oct. 7, 2013.
Details on “Best Kept Secret,” provided by PBS, are as follows:
At a public school in Newark, N.J., the staff answers the phone by saying, “You’ve reached John F. Kennedy High School, Newark’s best-kept secret.” JFK provides an exceptional environment for students with special-education needs. In Samantha Buck’s ”Best Kept Secret,” Janet Mino, who has taught a class of young men for four years, is on an urgent mission. She races against the clock as graduation approaches for her severely autistic minority students. Once they graduate and leave the security of this nurturing place, their options for living independently will be few. Mino must help them find the means to support themselves before they “age out” of the system.
The film focuses on the school¹s work with students with autism, who are characterized by difficulties with language and social interaction. The staff is not content only to give these students survival skills. They fight a tough, daily battle to open students up to the world. As teacher Janet Mino, puts it, “If I can teach you to take care of yourself . . . I can teach you to express yourself.”
But the remarkable efforts of the school come with an expiration date. Its students, who can enter at age 10, are “aged out” at 21. Parents and teachers call it “falling off the cliff,” because of the scarcity of continuing adult education programs and accommodations. In 2012, Mino faces the prospect of her entire class of six young men going off that cliff, and she begins a desperate search for alternatives to homebound idleness, institutionalization or homelessness for her graduating students.
About the students:
• Erik is Mino’s highest-functioning student, the class cut-up who is smart, talkative and good at following directions. He is happy and loves his “two moms”: a biological mother who is too ill to care for him and a dedicated and loving foster mother. Erik seems the most ready to graduate. In fact, he has a dream to work at Burger King.
• Quran is a quiet soul who works well, is able to read, successfully controls his social behavior and has strong support from two parents. Mino has high hopes for Quran but finds herself at odds with his father, who fears the teacher’s emphasis on education comes at the expense of acquiring basic life skills.
• Robert is the biggest mystery and source of heartbreak in the class. A troubled boy who cannot express his pain, he is given to erratic behavior. Robert’s father home-schooled him until he passed away four years ago, and Robert is now cared for by his aunt, a recovering drug addict.
Newark is among New Jersey’s poorest cities, with more than 25% of the general population and more than 40% of children living in poverty.* In the state of New Jersey, one in 49 children is believed to fall somewhere on the autism spectrum.** In Mino’s work, we see her conviction that these students have greater potential for living a full life than is often recognized. What is needed, in Mino’s view, are daily, one-on-one educational programs – the kind that make JFK a rare institution and that are even harder to find for adult autistics.
“This wasn’t meant to be a film about the causes or possible cures of autism,” says director Samantha Buck. “This is a personal story about some young men who live with it and their very dedicated teacher in one remarkable school. It’s about the struggles they face beyond the confines of that school.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who helped introduce Buck to John F. Kennedy High School, said, “I was proud to be part of this terrific documentary, which inspires me to continue fighting on behalf of children and adults living with autism.” In July 2013, Menendez introduced the Assistance in Gaining Experience, Independence and Navigation (AGE-IN) Act, which would provide federal funding to research and evaluate services currently available for young people “aging out” of existing education and support systems, develop a national strategic action plan and provide training grants to put the plan into action.
“I saw so much quiet strength in the spirit of Janet Mino, her fellow teachers and the parents of these incredible young men,” says producer Danielle DiGiacomo. “Samantha and I chose to tell a story about under-resourced people of color – arguably the most ignored population in the country – with dignity and without sensationalism.”
* United States Census Bureau: http://1.usa.gov/cB4pvl; ACNJ 2013 Report: http://bit.ly/18Q3493; NJ.com, Feb. 10,2013 : http://bit.ly/WCBoNn ** ³Autism survey finds 1 in 50 American kids are on the spectrum,² The Star-Ledger, March 21, 2013. http://bit.ly/WWJSkx
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