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Amid the post-9/11 malaise of early 2000s Manhattan, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg faced a daunting challenge in the form of ailing and struggling inner city high schools - particularly those in boroughs such as the Bronx, with a massive adolescent dropout rate. As a bold sociological experiment, Bloomberg opted to improve conditions by establishing more compact, "theme-based" schools; the approach not only alleviated numerous social problems but served as a harbinger for a sweeping process of reform that reshaped the educational systems in numerous American cities and communities. The Bronx's High School for the Contemporary Arts marked one of the first such institutions erected by Bloomberg. A secondary school that caters to the creatively-inclined by offering classes in theater, musical performance, painting and other forms of expression, the HSCA opened its doors in 2003, in the notorious 'Gun Hill' district of the Bronx. Sensing wondrous things afoot, acclaimed documentarians Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA) and David Becker traveled to the location and observed the unfolding changes - cameras rolling. The result - the PBS documentary Small Steps: Creating the High School for Contemporary Arts - observes students and faculty over the course of one year. The film places strongest emphasis on two young and gifted learners with great potential - Nnamdi Amenechi and Jamal McLelland - but also observes their parents and instructors, shedding a multifaceted light on the dreams, hopes, challenges and obstacles faced and countered by each of these individuals as the teens travel through the educational system. In the process, Kopple and Becker create a telling, "inside" portrait of how the institution managed to reinvent the educational process - scoring a stunning 70% graduation rate in its first year alone.
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