Keith Fulton & Lou Pepe's Sundance Award Winning Film The Bad Kids: Featuring Principal Vonda Viland on Changing At-Risk Students Lives

Keith Fulton & Lou Pepe's Sundance Award Winning Film The Bad Kids: Featuring Principal Vonda Viland on Changing At-Risk Students Lives

What do you do with students whom the system deems lost causes? Filmmakers Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe Sundance Award-Winning film The Bad Kids tackles this question by taking us inside Black Rock High School in the Mojave Desert, an alternative last chance high school for at-risk youth. The documentary features Principal Vonda Viland and her team in action. To understand where Principal Viland’s extraordinary and recognized approach to pedagogy comes from, GOOD DOCS asked her to share her thoughts on education and provide some insight into her successes working with young people.


The film The Bad Kids features your unique methodology. Can you talk a little more about your philosophy on education?
Honestly, I struggle with this question. I know I am supposed to say I believe that each and every child can and will succeed in their own time if given a supportive educational learning environment, and I DO believe that, but I believe that answer is a bit trite. With my experience with at-risk populations, I have seen that this doesn’t necessarily happen for all students in the current educational setting.I have seen many children not succeed in spite of having good teachers and a quality curriculum. Many kids have had such trauma in their lives that it takes something more than the traditional educational program currently offers. In order to truly ensure ALL students succeed, we need to look far beyond the curriculum. We need to make sure that we can help students make up for the absences in students’ lives. We need to help make up for their lack of experiences, their lack of basic needs, their lack of support, their lack of basic life skills, and their lack of self-esteem. We need to address the trauma these students have encountered before we can begin to truly expect them to be ready to succeed in school and in life.

I guess to sum up my philosophy of education, I would have to say that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs best leads the way to success in the classroom. I have also learned that positive reinforcement is key to student success. The Black Rock High School staff and I often talk of ‘The Power of Positive’. We have seen it happen time after time – students come to our school and are told for the first time in their lives that they matter, they are doing a good job, and that we are proud of them, and those students blossom. The positive reinforcement doesn’t have to be a tangible incentive or a big reward. It just needs to be individual, sincere, and consistent. Research indicates that the number one reason students drop out is a lack of a relationship with a positive adult. We must reach out to students and connect with them as individuals. We must show them we care about them as individuals and that we will be there to help guide them and pick them up when needed. 

As the principal of a "last chance high school," you often deal with students who struggle to complete their graduation requirements. What do you find is the best method to motivate reluctant students?
First, and foremost, I believe in the power of positive to motivate students. Students need to hear they are valued, that they are doing a good job, and that someone cares and is proud of them. This positive reinforcement must always be sincere, but it does not have to be big. It can simply be, “I am so glad you are here today,” or “I can tell you are putting forth a lot of effort into that assignment, and I am proud of your effort and hard work.” A majority of students will do anything if they know they are truly seen and will be recognized for their work.

At Black Rock, we have created two systems that ensure that positivity is systemic: First, we have credit slips where students are “paid” immediately in credit for all their work. Students track their credit progress, which motivates them to move forward. This system of education is extremely motivational. We are more than happy to show it to other schools, but it is not something I can demonstrate in a short paragraph. It needs to be shown rather than explained. Secondly, we use a gold slip program where teachers write short notes to several students each day, telling them how proud they are of them for specific behaviors. They give me these notes, and I document the students’ success for their report cards and then go and meet with each student, reinforcing how well they are doing and how proud the teachers and I are of them. One should see the smiles when they receive these slips. I have seen these notes literally transform and motivate student after student. It doesn’t take big prizes; it just takes a little time and a lot of caring. Additionally, students will perform for those with whom they have a connection. It is important to get to know students as individuals…to know their stories…to listen to them and to find some level on which to connect with them. A rich, relevant, interesting, interactive curriculum also helps greatly when trying to motivate students. No one enjoys having to do things that are irrelevant to their lives or that are dull or uninteresting to them.

How is the film The Bad Kids relevant to the current state of public education specifically with rising poverty levels?
The students in this film are not unique. All schools and all classrooms have students like the ones depicted in the film whose lives have been impacted by some form of trauma. The Bad Kids is vastly relevant to the current state of education. Teachers can no longer come into a classroom and assume students have their basic physical, emotional, or social needs met. They can no longer expect to have a classroom full of students who are ready to learn. We can no longer go in and teach to the middle and expect the best. In addition to teaching new teachers and administrators how to teach and modify the curriculum and how to create and orchestrate a classroom environment with multiple levels and activities, we need to teach educators how to recognize and handle students whose lives are impacted from trauma. This is no easy task in itself, and it is especially difficult for educators who have thirty or more students in their classrooms. We, as a society, need to realize that we must act on these issues, or we will continue to lose kids and will create a very ugly, dangerous cycle of students who see no relevance in education, who have no skills to succeed in education and in the workforce, and who are physically, emotionally, and socially deprived. We can’t just continue to push these kids out of the traditional high schools. We must spotlight the realities, start the conversations on what can be done to address the issues, and connect the educators with the services and mental health care providers. Failure to do so is simply too expensive for these individual kids and for our society as a whole.

Students who attend Black Rock are considered at-risk youth. Do you find common trends in these adolescents? If so, what are they?
The majority of the at-risk student population has experienced some form of trauma in their lives. Ninety percent of the at-risk students live below the poverty level. Many have suffered abuse and neglect, many suffer from depression, anxiety, self-mutilation tendencies, suicidal thoughts, and/or addiction.The at-risk population has become disenfranchised from the educational system and have lost hope in their futures. As a result, their school attendance rates are declining, their discipline rates are increasing, and they are dropping out at staggering levels. Most of these students want help. I have yet to meet a youth who wants to fail, who wants to be a screw-up. They simply do not know how to succeed or how to move forward. They want to be heard, but they don’t know how to articulate their needs, so they often act out or drop out. 

The filmmakers Lou Pepe and Keith Fulton provide a fly on the wall experience into interactions between students and staff, as well as staff meetings. What are challenges your staff has had to overcome that wasn’t shown in the film?
The biggest challenge we as a staff face is maintaining our positivity and energy on a daily basis. The filmmakers, Lou and Keith, accurately described my job as constant triage. The staff and I go from one child’s problems or needs to another’s to another’s every hour of each day of each week of each month. It can be difficult to not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems and not get discouraged. We work together as a team each day to find ways to motivate both the students and each other. We work to help maintain our sense of humor, our positive energy, and our bag of tools to use to help our students. It is also a great challenge to find services for our students. Because we live in an extremely rural, poverty-stricken community, we do not have many services available to our students. We work hard to seek ways to meet the students’ basic needs (shelter, food, hygiene products, clothing, shoes, jobs, etc.) and emotional needs (counseling) as there simply are not the services available here that are available in a larger community. 

It is evident from the film that you are very invested in the youth who pass through your halls. What do you want your students to take away from their time at Black Rock?
We spend a great deal of time teaching our students how to set goals and how to establish plans to make those goals come true. We also strive to ensure our students have the confidence and self-esteem to move forward with their dreams and goals. Obviously, we also work to ensure our students have the basic life and academic skills needed to successfully move forward with their lives. Most importantly, though, I want the students to leave our school, knowing that there is someone who cares- that they have family here- and that we will always be here to help them. We have students who come back to us all the time to share their successes in life, to seek our help with education and careers, and to just talk…just like a family does. That sense of having a functional family is the biggest gift I want the students to take with them when they leave us. 

What have you learned from working with the at-risk students at Black Rock High School? 
Our students have taught me so very much. First, I have learned no student wants to fail. Every single student with whom I have worked has wanted to succeed, has wanted to create a better life for him/herself. They simply need the support and guidance to make that happen. I have also learned that if we listen to the students, most times they will tell us what is what. They will tell us what we need to know to help them and will tell us how we can best help. We simply need to listen! I have learned that it does not take a big, fancy curricular program or huge incentive program to reach our students. It takes so little to make a difference in students’ lives. We simply need to care for them, listen to them, encourage them, give them positive reinforcement, guide them, and be there for them. Simply put, it just takes time to make a huge difference in their lives. I have also learned that these students have a lot to offer, and we are wasting a huge resource by letting them slip through the cracks. Lastly, these students have taught me resilience. They are the most resilient people. Life keeps knocking them down and giving them hardship after hardship, and most times, they keep getting right back up. I have tried to remember this when I personally feel down or feel frustrated with what life has thrown at me. If they can survive and thrive after all they have been through, I surely can make it through the things I must face.

What do you want viewers to take away from The Bad Kids film?
It is my hope that viewers will walk away from the film with a sense of empathy…not sympathy, for these students. Viewers should walk away with a sense of hope and a belief that these students can succeed if we work together to create a network of support. Viewers can make a difference in these students’ lives by reaching out to their legislators, seeking support for alternative schools, for laws connecting community resources and counseling services with the schools, and for additional funding for these types of programs. They can also reach out to their local alternative schools or school districts to see how they can support the at-risk students in their own communities. The students at Black Rock High School are not unique to our area. There is a need for small, supportive schools like Black Rock in all communities. If we fail to act, if we ignore this at-risk population, or shove them to the side, we will create a very ugly cycle of uneducated adults and poverty.

Jenna Nishida is an undergraduate student at Loyola Marymount University majoring in Marketing with a minor in Sociology. Through working with this documentary she was able to mix her passion for film and issues surrounding social inequality.