Welcome to Commie High filmmaker Donald Harrison. Photo by J. Adrian Wylie

Welcome to Commie High was aired last month on PBS stations throughout Michigan and thirteen more nationwide. On Friday, June 24, the one-and-a-half-hour documentary will be shown at the Michigan Theater as part of the fiftieth anniversary celebration of Ann Arbor’s “alternative” high school.

There are reasons to celebrate. Community is one of the few survivors of America’s flirtation with the “free school” movement of the late sixties and early seventies. Created in a flush of excitement in 1972 by a superintendent who was soon forced out, the school found itself on shaky ground under a more conservative successor who made ominous noises about the high cost of operating a tiny school downtown. The kids coolly smoking on the school grounds didn’t exactly boost its image. 

But Community’s reputation as a haven of oddballs and druggies began to change once parents noticed that it was turning out surprising numbers of National Merit scholars. In a 1988 Observer article, then-counselor Larry Stewart pointed out proudly that Community once produced more Merit scholars than Huron, which had five times as many students. 

Interest increased further when 1987 grad Kelly Stupple got into Harvard. As applications climbed, and students and parents camped out to be first in line to apply, the school switched to an enrollment lottery in 1997. 

Although competition is less fierce these days (probably because it’s become much easier for students to choose their school), three kids still apply for every open spot. From fewer than 400 students in the 1980s, it now consistently enrolls more than 500. But it’s still less than a third the size of Pioneer—and “other schools see us as the weird school,” says sophomore Dominik Fitzsimmons. 

The Community family appears proud of its gleefully nonconforming identity; its mascot remains the rainbow-spangled zebra, shown on building murals that also feature the ho-hum striped kind. Though few now use the old nickname “Commie High,” students still have a reputation for leaning left. And they still call their teachers by their first names. 

But in recent years, changing district demographics, stricter state graduation requirements, and (to a lesser extent) morale-challenged teachers have made it more mainstream. As it emerges from the trauma of the pandemic into undeniable middle age, some wonder if it’s still the unconventional high school for kids who, whatever the reason, need a small, informal setting to thrive. Or has it become, as some social-media grumbling would have it, essentially a publicly funded prep school for parents who either can’t afford Greenhills or are pleased they don’t have to? 

Its mission statement begins, “CHS is a rigorous academic college preparatory magnet school,” and at last month’s virtual orientation for new students, the two alums who spoke were students at Yale and Princeton. 

One incoming freshman, who’d been thrilled at the chance to attend a small school in a downtown setting, was unnerved. She had struggled in middle school, her mother told me, and now wondered whether she would be able to keep up with her classmates. 

“It’s become whiter and richer,” a former teacher told me, expressing frustration that few kids from struggling and minority families get to experience Community’s more personal approach. A student writing in its thick, glossy magazine, the Communicator, recently worried that the school was losing its “compelling underdog story.” 

Harrison believes the film’s biggest audience will be educators, and he hopes that it might generate some buzz about different models of public high schools. A rave review from documentarian Ken Burns—a Pioneer High grad—should help.

It wasn’t an underdog story that captured Donald Harrison’s imagination—it was the image of students camping out in the snow to get into high school. At a dinner several years ago, a woman described how, in the pre-lottery days, she and others had been so eager to get into Community that they’d done just that outside the administration building on S. State. 

Harrison was amazed. He couldn’t imagine sacrificing time and comfort to get into his alma mater, Southfield High. 

The director meets me in the office of his video production company, 7 Cylinders Studio, in downtown Ypsilanti. He once ran the Ann Arbor Film Festival and still has an artsy vibe in a black pin-striped jacket over a dark gray vest and dark T-shirt featuring a stylistic rendering of Community High’s nonconforming zebra.

Though 7 Cylinders mostly makes promotional pieces for nonprofits and businesses, he says, that dinner left him “chewing around on the idea of making a small film” about Community. 

He started talking to people and digging into Community’s past, and two years later launched a GoFundMe campaign. It raised $55,000, enough to encourage him to steam ahead with a longer, more ambitious documentary.

Over about fifty visits to the school and many off-campus shoots, he captured about 100 hours of video. Weeding it down to an hour-and-a-half was painful: “We had to leave some of our favorite footage on the cutting room floor.” 

After additional fundraising, he finished it just before the pandemic. This will be its first theatrical release. 

Welcome to Commie High starts with the scene that captured his interest: the line of students hoping to get in, from a 1996 NPR story. From there, it dips in and out of the 2016–2017 school year, beginning with orientation at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church and ending at graduation at Rackham Auditorium. 

Various mini-stories play out. Kelly Stupple visits the school with her middle-school daughter, Leah, a prospective Community student. “You guys look a little cleaner, a little more put together” than her generation, she tells the kids. Students rally against the deportation of a classmate’s Jordanian dad. When the school’s award-winning jazz ensemble plays the Detroit auto show, an incredulous woman asks, “You guys are just high school students?” 

Harrison zooms in on the “forum” of longtime beloved English teacher Judith DeWoskin. Essentially a homeroom with heart, “forum” is one of Community’s signature features. Students stay with their forum teacher all four years and take part in activities like Frisbee, picnics, and even weekend camping trips. Harrison regrets that he missed—“by ten minutes”—a chance to catch DeWoskin leading a conga line. 

Legendary English teacher Judith DeWoskin.

The forum teacher also acts as sort of a school parent. “If you see a kid looking miserable,” explains science teacher Liz Stern, “you pull them aside and sit down for half an hour.” 

Harrison could have used that attention at Southfield High. Second in his graduating class, he appeared outwardly confident and relaxed. In reality, he says, “it was the worst time in my life.” His mother was struggling with mental illness, his parents’ marriage was falling apart, and he lived alone in his home for part of his senior year. Yet “nobody in that high school knew what was going on.” It was so big that a student could “just be invisible,” and he never felt close enough to a teacher to confide. In a school like Community, he thinks, things might have gone differently. 

Theodore Grenier, better known to WCBN radio listeners (and readers of Observer music reviews) as arwulf arwulf, was present at the creation. “The city was pretty wild and so was Community, and so was I,” he recalls. 

Then-superintendent Bruce McPherson was influenced by the Parkway Program in Philadelphia, a “school without walls” where students earned credit for working or learning in the outside community—and called their teachers by their first names.

“To be so different from what we call ‘high school U.S.A.’ is one of the things the Commie High folks are so very proud of” reads the introduction to the 1979 Community High yearbook. The yearbook also noted the school’s first “punk”—a student who showed up one day with a “clasped safety pin through his cheek”—and reminded everyone that it was “illegal to smoke” inside—except in the designated smoking lounge.

The smoking lounge is long gone, but students still leave campus freely, not only for lunch but to earn credit outside of school. “Community resources” (CRs) let students follow their interests through independent study with a mentor, volunteering, or taking classes at the U-M or WCC. Students have earned credit volunteering at the nearby Hands-on Museum, playing in the Ann Arbor Symphony, and studying German with a native speaker. 

Some who’ve seen Welcome to Commie High protest that it romanticizes a period that had its share of pain. But Harrison does acknowledge problems: “The dark side was people doing too many drugs,” alum Linda Diane Feldt says in one clip. (Sadly, Feldt didn’t live to see the film released.) 

Another grad I talked to says the drug use sometimes extended to the staff. In the mid-eighties, this person recalls, “I did cocaine with an administrator in the gym.” 

In the early years, student-teacher boundaries were also slack enough that at least a couple of affairs played out. Skipping school was so common and attendance records were so lax that one parent recalls that her daughter had quit Community for a month before anyone noticed.

But for those for whom Community worked, it worked beautifully. Star grad Neda Ulaby, an NPR reporter who once got sociology credit for volunteering at Ozone House, recently told the Communicator that her debt to the school is “incalculable.”

Over the decades, the town’s changing demographics rippled through the school. The former teacher who reflected on the school “getting richer and whiter” recalls that as late as the early 2000s, “the children of the hippies went there—liberal types who rented rather than owned. But now, who can afford to rent?” 

A longtime concern is that the school’s black population is small, currently about five percent. This reflects research that finds alternative schools are less popular in the black community. 

Many minority parents “are trying to get into mainstream society, not out of it,” says former Community teacher Mike Mouradian. But a 1996 grad who asked not to be named told me she had “a really good experience as a black student at Community,” with the Black Student Union led by “a wonderful teacher named Evelyn Collins.” 

Like all schools, Community was profoundly shaken by the pandemic. Virtual school was a poor substitute for the real thing, and the frustrations of teaching virtually contributed to the departure of several veteran teachers, including DeWoskin. 

In a recent Communicator interview, DeWoskin and another recent retiree, Robbie Stapleton, expressed concern that the forum experience was being diminished, because the groups had grown too large and were increasingly being scheduled at lunchtime, when everything felt rushed. How, DeWoskin wondered, could kids be “raw and honest” in that setting? In an interview, Community dean Marci Tuzinsky says that the changes were developed to make it easier for kids who take classes or play sports at other schools to attend. 

A student editorial in the same issue of the Communicator echoed the teachers’ concerns about forum—and also sounded an alarm about Community Resources. In a school with 516 students, it pointed out, only 115 CRs were planned. By comparison, in 1973, 413 students took “a whopping 550 CR courses.” 

Today’s Community kids may be less intoxicated with the “school without walls” than earlier generations. But some changes can be traced to the State of Michigan’s implementation of a Common Core curriculum ten years ago, because its increased graduation requirements squeezed the school in different ways. 

Hiring more teachers cut into funding for the CR program, and a more programmed curriculum left teachers with fewer creative opportunities. The requirements “don’t necessarily change the way you teach, but it does restrict you in what you teach,” says Stern, the science teacher. And then there are the ubiquitous stresses of teaching in an increasingly expensive region. The days of big raises are long gone, says DeWoskin, and “many teachers are living paycheck to paycheck.” 

Harrison believes the film’s biggest audience will be educators, and he hopes that Welcome to Commie High—which is also being shown at some film festivals—might generate some buzz about different models of public high schools. He adds he would love to see the emergence of more schools like it. 

A rave review from documentarian Ken Burns—a Pioneer High grad—should help. “This is terrific!” wrote Burns, who met Harrison through the Ann Arbor Film Festival. “I loved—LOVED—every second of it.” 

The young rebels of the 1970s might sneer at some of the “establishment” changes—Community now holds a prom, and there’s a fashion section in the Communicator. But the school still calls to those looking for something different. 

A few weeks ago, I attended a Community High poetry reading at Booksweet, on Plymouth Rd. Afterward, I asked sophomore Poppy McGee, a friendly girl with pink-streaked hair, why she chose Community. On a school visit, she says, “I could feel the creative energy there.”