Whatever It Takes chronicles the struggles and triumphs of the first year of a small, innovative public high school set in New York City’s South Bronx. This deeply emotional, vérité-style documentary primarily examines the intertwined lives of two characters: Edward Tom, the school’s visionary rookie principal, and Sharifea Baskerville, a spunky ninth-grade girl with big dreams but even bigger obstacles.
The Bronx Center for Science & Mathematics (BCSM) was specifically designed to create a small family environment in which every student is focused upon attending college in four years. Banners overhead trumpet the school’s values – Honor, Excellence, Service, Perseverance, Integrity, Commitment, Respect – and students appear to wholeheartedly embrace their school’s potent mixture of tough love and high expectations.
The individualized attention offered by BCSM seems to be exactly what a student like Sharifea Baskerville needs. A 14-year-old girl who spends most of her time taking care of her two siblings and ailing mother, Sharifea still shows up at school ready to learn, her backpack bursting full with textbooks. Her goal is to become a pediatrician, but her family environment – she was pulled into foster care at a young age because of her mother’s drug addiction to crack cocaine – threatens to overwhelm her best intentions. Midway through the year, Sharifea receives F’s in all her classes.
For Principal Ed Tom, working with students like Sharifea used to be the furthest thing from his mind. By age 24, Ed was already an executive at Saks Fifth Avenue, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. As the eldest soon of poor Chinese immigrants, Ed was living the American Dream.
Three years later, however, a spiritual epiphany results in Ed abruptly quitting his job and becoming a high school math teacher. Seven years and numerous teaching awards later, his passion for working with at-risk minority youth led to his appointment as principal of BCSM.
In his rookie year, reality also hits hard for Ed. Several students drop out, gang members start recruiting at BCSM, and even parents lose their enthusiasm for the school’s vision. Worse still, the principal’s leadership style loses traction among his staff. One science teacher’s bad experience with Ed leads to a staff-wide disillusionment regarding his failure to enforce a consistent discipline policy.
The final act of Whatever It Takes captures the efforts of Principal Tom and his staff working feverishly to finish the year on an uplifting note. They cultivate a hopeful partnership with Dartmouth College, in which six BCSM students gain entrance into the prestigious “summer camp” program intended to prepare at-risk teenagers for the college admissions process. Miraculously, Sharifea is accepted.
Tension builds, however, as Sharifea’s poor grades threaten to disqualify her from participation. As a last resort, the school arranges an emergency meeting between Principal Tom, Sharifea, and her mother. Amidst the raw emotion and tough talk, one thing becomes clear: nobody is ready to give up on Sharifea, but she has to decide if she truly wants to change.