Thursday, August 10, 2017

Young women step toward college

The students we meet in the documentary Step are spirited and entirely engaging.
The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women was founded in 2009 with the stated aim of getting every one of its students into college. Modeled on the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem, the Baltimore edition accepts 100 students a year. Students are selected through a lottery process.

If you look at the school's Web site, you'll find prominent mention of the BLSYW's competitive Step team and of Step, the much-heralded documentary about the team's young women. But, and this is a key to understanding the school, you'll find more emphasis on academics, counseling and on an educational culture that stresses science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

In what presumably was an attempt to honor the school's mission, director Amanda Lipitz's documentary spends as much time on the lives of three seniors as it does on the school's Step team, which is in the midst of trying to recover from an off year in which the team's best stepper -- Blessin Giraldo -- missed 53 school days.

The charismatic Giraldo comes closest to being the film's main character; she's from a home in which the refrigerator can remain empty until the Food Stamps arrive. As the school year progresses, Blessin's mother misses parents' nights, and her counselors struggle to motivate her to commit to the academic excellence which they're confident she can achieve.

At one point, a school official asks Blessin why she can't make as big a commitment to the school's academics as she has made to Step.

All of the students on whom Lipitz focuses come from economically strained backgrounds and all of them have grown up around the violence that continues to plague Baltimore. The movie begins with clips of protests that erupted after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of spinal cord injuries sustained in the back of a police van.

The point is that none of these young women are sailing smoothly toward success; their challenges are many, but -- if Step is any indication -- their spirits are strong enough to meet them.

Lipitz also introduces us to Cori Grainger, the class valedictorian. She's part of the Step team but dreams of attending Johns Hopkins. Cori's mother -- Triana -- was 16 when Cori was born.

Like any teenager, Tayla Solomon, the movie's third student, sometimes finds her intensely focused mother "annoying." But Mom, who's employed as a corrections officer, clearly works hard to ensure that her daughter doesn't drop her guard. When Tayla's grades slide, Mom -- who attends every practice of the Step team -- lets her daughter know that she's skating on thin ice and that boys will not be a distraction.

The Step team's coach -- Cari "Coach G" McIntyre -- proves supportive of the Step team, but she, too, has a single-minded focus on achieving excellence.

Lipitz includes lots of scenes at Step practice, where Coach G supervises. Her goal: To win a championship at an annual Step competition held at Bowie State University. The steppers, who call themselves "The Lethal Ladies of BLSYW," must be in top form to compete against teams from several other states.

The movie makes clear that for these young women success can be motivated by their desire not to lead lives that constantly are shortchanged by money woes and hardship.

I found Step a bit scattered, and I wish Lipitz had spent more time showing how step routines are developed. But I was impressed less by the filmmaking than by the young women of Step and by their school's supportive but disciplined approach, which seems to insist that in a sink-or-swim world, sinking simply won't be accepted as an option.

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