Listen to the youth.
That’s the message Oakland students want you to take away from Homeroom, the Peter Nicks documentary premiering on Hulu this week.
The film chronicles Oakland High School’s graduating class as they navigate the 2019-2020 school year—including the joys and pitfalls of their senior year marred by a global pandemic, budget cuts threatening student programming, and the fight to remove police from schools. Homeroom is the third in a trilogy of documentaries directed by Nicks and his film company Open’hood examining three public institutions in Oakland. The first was The Waiting Room, a 2012 film about Highland Hospital, followed by The Force, a 2017 documentary on the Oakland Police Department. Now, Homeroom takes a deep dive into the Oakland Unified School District.
The opening of the movie sets the scene for the beginning of the school year, narrated with news reports about OUSD facing immense budget cuts months after a weeklong teachers’ strike. The bleak voiceovers punctuate scenes of students waking up, leaving their houses, and driving to campus on the first day of their senior year of high school. As the year progresses, tensions flare over issues that put students at odds with adults, especially when it comes to the presence of police in schools.
“We encountered many adults who were against what we were doing who tried their best to change our minds or offer other alternatives and just tried to shut the whole thing down,” Dwayne Davis, one of the seniors featured in the film, told The Oaklandside, about the student movement to remove police. “And of course, we’re going to keep advocating for what we believe is best for students in our community.”
Early in the film, high school students who are part of the district’s All City Council student union meet to talk about the budget cuts and how they threatened student programming for “newcomers,” who are students who have recently immigrated to the United States. During the 2019-2020 school year, OUSD was serving nearly 3,000 newcomer students.
Mica Smith-Dahl, one of the student school board directors, makes the first mention in the film of disbanding the school police department during the All City Council meeting, which she suggests as an alternative to cutting student programming. At the time, Oakland Unified was the only school district in Alameda County with its own district police force. She suggested the cut as “something simple” the district could do to save money.
But it was far from simple. Throughout the movie, adults are continually portrayed in opposition to students on this issue. During a meeting with OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell where students were invited to talk about their budget priorities, senior Denilson Garibo asked about cutting police, to which Johnson-Trammell responded curtly that they could discuss that issue at a future time when they had a more formal proposal. At school board meetings, student directors Garibo and Smith-Dahl who sit on the board faced opposition from other board members and adult hecklers in the crowd yelling over them.
“You’re going to encounter being pushed aside when you’re in spaces with adults who just refuse to listen to what the youth need,” Garibo told The Oaklandside in an interview. “Oftentimes, adults think that students are not aware of the harmful institutional decisions that are being made by them to negatively impact our future. They should listen to us because in the end, those decisions are going to be the consequences that we’re going to have to deal with.”
Homeroom’s other plotline centers on students simply being students, and serves as a time capsule of the world before March 2020: teens attending a homecoming pep rally, taking senior photos, going to parties, and rehearsing for the school production of In The Heights.
One scene captures the seniors as they discuss their SAT scores and college prospects. Minutes later, students are talking about their college essays, and their conversations center on the complex social issues that have shaped their lives: one writes about growing up in a low-income, single-parent household, dodging gun violence and needles on the ground, another mentions gentrification and having to move multiple times in the past year because of rising housing costs. Garibo shares that he’s writing about his experiences as a kid, migrating to the U.S. as an undocumented young person with his mom at six years old.
For Garibo, the contrast between students’ SAT results and the lives they write about underscores the importance of district officials listening to students.
“We saw a scene where many of our seniors at Oakland High lacked the highest SAT scores. That’s not a reflection of how smart we are, but it’s more of a reflection of the education that OUSD is giving us. We don’t have the privilege to have private tutors or access to materials that other youth have in other rich areas,” Garibo told The Oaklandside. “But we are experts in our own reality, and we have so much, and I mean so much, to contribute in making our education better.”
The looming pandemic casts an uneasiness over the film’s more joyful scenes, as viewers anticipate the moment teased in the movie’s trailer, when Oakland High School principal Matin Abdel-Qawi comes over the school intercom system to announce that schools would be closing for the next three weeks because of coronavirus.
Much of the final third of the film uses self-shot footage from students at grocery stores stocking up on food and supplies, scenes of Zoom school, and virtual club meetings. As demonstrations erupted across the U.S. against police brutality following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, youth planned a massive demonstration at Oakland Technical High School, and a march to mayor Libby Schaaf’s house to demand that police be removed from Oakland schools.
While Homeroom has received accolades from film festivals so far, the students are hopeful that the wider release on Hulu will spur more youth into becoming leaders and activists in their own communities. One of the more powerful aspects of the film for Davis was that it showed young people continuing to organize toward their goal of disbanding the school police department, even after COVID-19 upended their lives.
“I would love for students and youth around the world to just realize how much power you have,” Davis told The Oaklandside. “You’re taught that adults are the decision makers. But I think our generation has proved that that isn’t always the best thing to follow, and that kids have just as much power as adults.”
Back in 2019, the filmmakers had originally set out to produce a piece about mental health in teenagers told from their perspective, inspired in part by Nicks’ daughter, Karina, who struggled with mental health issues and unexpectedly died early in filming, said Sean Havey, a producer and cinematographer on the film. The movie closes in her memory and is dedicated to the class of 2020, whose journey into adulthood was interrupted by a global crisis.
In June 2020, the school board voted unanimously to disband the school police department and invest in more restorative justice practices. Because school remained mostly virtual during the following school year, the goal of having police-free schools couldn’t truly be implemented until this fall.
“We recognized something in our community that was set up to make us fail,” Davis told The Oaklandside about the presence of police in schools. “And we, the community, the youth, kids, came together and advocated for change, and it actually happened.”
Homeroom will be available to stream on Hulu beginning Aug. 12.