Over lunch, Enoch Jemmott’s frustration mounts as his mother reveals she doesn’t have her 1099 in her files.
Jemmott is one of the subjects of the film Personal Statement, which documents some of the challenges facing students from low-income backgrounds. Jemmott needed the form for college, but over and over again, obstacles blocked his path to obtaining it.
It’s the scene, Director Juliane Dressner said, that has most shocked audiences. The documentary follows three students — Jemmott, Christine Rodriguez and Karoline Jimenez — as they navigate the college application process with little guidance. To fill the guidance gap, the three serve as peer college counselors to their fellow students.
At 3 p.m. on Jan. 21, Personal Statement will screen at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
The event will include a panel discussion with School District of Philadelphia student organizers and counselors, as well as City Councilwoman At-Large Helen Gym. Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg of The Public Interest Law Center will moderate the discussion. Dressner, who is Jewish, and Rodriguez will be in attendance.
The event is free but RSVPs are required. Attendees can reserve tickets through Eventbrite.
“Often, we go to events and the quote-unquote experts are up there talking to the audience about the situation,” said Heather Marcus, a school counselor at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School who organized the event.
“Based on the film, where the students are just telling their own stories, I wanted the panel to represent students and counselors telling our stories in Philadelphia, so the audience could really hear what it was like from the students who are seniors and juniors in our schools in Philadelphia who don’t have enough resources.”
The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one school counselor for every 250 students.
But nationwide, there is just one school counselor for every 464 students, according to the American School Counselor Association’s data from the 2015-2016 school year. In Pennsylvania that same year, the ratio was one counselor to 396 students.
While more than 90 percent of high school students want to go to college, many don’t achieve higher education. The National Center for Education Statistics found that only 14 percent of students of low socioeconomic status obtain their bachelor’s degree within eight years of graduating high school.
“What we find is the college counseling gap is a major cause of this achievement gap, and yet, many people are unaware of it,” Dressner said. “When they’re made aware of it, from seeing the film and then hearing about these statistics and the situation, they’re outraged, and they want to do something about it.”
About five years ago, Dressner learned of College Access: Research & Action (CARA), the organization that trained the three students to be peer college counselors, and was struck by its potential to tell a story about education equity through film.
CARA was receptive to the idea.
On the first day of training, Dressner was in a room with 70 students who were there to learn about becoming peer college counselors. Dressner let them know she wanted to make a film and that anyone interested in collaborating should come and talk to her.
She ended up selecting Jemmott, Rodriguez and Jimenez as her subjects.
“When people hear about the fact that young people are working as peer college counselors, it’s hard to imagine just hearing about it, that they’re actually doing the work of college counseling,” Dressner said. “You don’t really understand how powerful the work is unless you can see it in action.”
Personal Statement is not Dressner’s first documentary, although it is her first feature-length one. She previously created the short films The Scars of Stop-and-Frisk, published as an op-doc by The New York Times, and An Education, published by The New York Times Magazine.
Filmmaking is a second career for Dressner. She previously worked in the nonprofit sector, where she documented best practices in social programs, including youth organizing. She wanted to make documentaries to share the work these young people were doing.
Dressner said her Jewish identity is part of what motivates her to pursue social justice through film.
Though Personal Statement came out last year, Dressner has continued work around the documentary through an outreach, engagement and impact campaign. Dressner has worked with Jemmott, Rodriguez and Jimenez to attend screenings and raise awareness about the need for more school counselors.
They have put on screening to inspire students from disadvantaged backgrounds to persist with their own college aspirations.
“Our goal is to use the film to really put this issue on the table, to focus more light on it,” Dressner said. “When people learn about it, they can’t believe it.” l