Film tracks alumni efforts to help troubled school
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Film tracks alumni efforts to help troubled school

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Gang member Sharif, center, with classmates, 2009

While many have warm memories of their high school days, only a few reach beyond the memories – acting to ensure that succeeding generations will have positive experiences of their own.

In “Heart of Stone,” Montclair resident and producer/director/writer Beth Toni Kruvant highlights the efforts of alumni who do exactly that – reaching out to a school that has fallen upon hard times and helping to restore its former glory.

The title of the award-winning film, a play on the name of Weequahic High School Principal Ron Stone, reflects Kruvant’s belief that “he had to have a heart of stone to gain the respect of his students,” many of whom are active gang members. His strategy, she said, was to “co-opt” students into the process of self-improvement, “using their natural leadership abilities” to help chart a new course both for themselves and their classmates.

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Weequahic High School in the 1950s

On her Website, Kruvant points out that Stone turned the school into a “nonviolence zone … transforming the gang culture of the school to one of discipline and performance.” That, in itself, would make for an interesting film. But there is more, a distinctly Jewish angle to the story. Stone worked hand in hand with the school’s alumni association, many of whose members are Jewish.

Kruvant was inspired to tell the story of Weequahic High School after returning from a trip to Ukraine, where she visited the birthplace of her grandfather.

“I was a filmmaker looking for my roots,” she said.

Noting that a local historical society was offering a tour of novelist “Philip Roth’s Newark” – which she described as “a deeply rooted Jewish enclave, like Camelot to its alumni”- she picked up the video camera she had brought to Europe and set off to trace the roots of her own father, who grew up in Newark and attended Weequahic High.

Kruvant was also attracted by a notice in a local Jewish newspaper announcing that the alumni association of Weequahic High School – which, she said, “was known as one of the top schools in America before 1960″ – was holding a fund-raising event for today’s student body.

According to Kruvant, while the Weequahic of her father’s day boasted a large roster of distinguished graduates, by 2000 the school had become known as one of the most violent schools in Newark, itself ranked the 12th most dangerous city in the country.

“I thought it was unusual and generous for the old Jewish alumni to continue giving back to the place” they came from, she wrote on her Website. “Smelling a story, I asked if I could film the event, where I interviewed Ron Stone, the principal of Weequahic High, and realized there was a major story taking place at WHS.”

This is Kruvant’s third documentary. Her first, “Born in Buenos Aires” – which explores the situation of the Argentine Jewish community during the political and fiscal crisis of 2001- is being distributed by the National Center for Jewish Film. The second, “The Right To Be Wrong,” was featured on PBS and chronicles the fruits of an Israeli-Palestinian friendship.

Explaining the genesis of her most recent films, Kruvant explained that at one of WHS’s frequent reunions, the two founders of the alumni association, Hal Braff and Sheldon Bross, came up with the idea of “giving back.”

“Growing up, [the Jewish students] had good relations with the black community until the [Newark] riots in 1967,” said the filmmaker. “They said, ‘Let’s rekindle that.'”

In fact, those ties have been rekindled and strengthened, at least among the alumni of the school, primarily older Jews and younger African-Americans. The co-presidents of the association are drawn from both groups.

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Filmmaker Beth Toni Kruvant

Kruvant said that the alumni association, devoted both to the school and to the notion that it could “give a future” to current students, raised $100,000 at its first event.

The group has a 20-member board and thousands of alumni, many of whom contributed, she said. While alumni are spread out, many live in Essex County.

“They’ve stayed close,” said Kruvant, explaining that association founders Braff – his son, the actor Zach Braff, is executive producer of the documentary – and Bross were friends of her family.

“I attended the fund-raising event and every meeting of the board for two years,” said Kruvant, adding that she was given permission to film freely, as she was at the school itself.

Ultimately, with continued fund-raisers and private donations, the alumni association was able to establish an endowment for WHS students, now totaling more than half a million dollars.

After deciding to help the new crop of WHS students, the alumni association called Stone, whose tenure began in 2001, to see if he was interested in working with them.

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WHS Principal Ron Stone

“He is an inspirational leader,” said Kruvant. “He knows how to use the money as a ‘carrot’ for the students, broadening their horizons.”

She explained that he began by meeting with identified gang members in the school, inviting them to conflict-resolution meetings at which he tried to teach them how to resolve differences with words rather than guns.

“He used their leadership ability in a positive way,” she said.

As a result of alumni efforts, some students have received stipends toward college tuition, while others have been taken on school trips.

“Some of them had never left the neighborhood,” said Kruvant.

“I don’t think [the WHS students] understand the Jewish connection,” said Kruvant, noting the mostly Jewish make-up of the older alumni. “There’s no talk about politics in their homes,” she added, explaining that parents are noticeably absent from many of the children’s lives.

Kruvant said the principal gave her complete access to the school and into the lives of the three gang members she subsequently filmed – Blood Gang members Sharif and Ricky, and Crip member Rayvon.

“Principal Stone walked me around the school and shared his past and introduced me to staff and students,” she said. “It was then that I learned of his struggle to turn the school around.”

“Ron Stone is their father figure,” she said, pointing out that one gang member told her that Stone’s intervention has inspired him to “get out of the hood.” On the Website, another is quoted as saying, “If it weren’t for the system at Weequahic High School, these gang members would be gone.”

The filmmaker said the movie has taught her an important lesson.

“It teaches me not to give up on underachievers,” she said. “They have a lot to offer.” In addition, she said, WHS alumni, many of whom are in their 70s, have found a new purpose.

“They’re excited to do more and more … to invest in the next generation,” she said. “‘Heart of Stone’ shows how disparate groups can join together to give their old communities something they haven’t had for generations – a future.”

The film, which has been screened at both black and Jewish film festivals, has won numerous awards, including Audience Award, Slamdance Film Festival; Jury Award for Best Documentary and Kaiser Permanente “Thrive” Award, Cinequest Film Festival; and Best Feature Film, Philadelphia Film Festival.

For information about upcoming screenings, visit the Website, heartofstonethemovie.com.

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