You Better Wake Up And Pay Attention: The Best High School Struggle Movies

December 12, 2013  |  
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While movies are meant to entertain the audience, sometimes there’s a message thrown in there. The schools in these movies were nearly falling apart until one inspirational person came along to change everything. Check out our list of the 15 best struggling high school movies.

Lean On Me

He’s starred in over 100 movies but none more memorable than Lean On Me. Eastside High School was one of the worst schools around until Morgan Freeman’s Joe Clark became principal. The 1989 film was loosely based on the story of the real life Joe Clark who revived the dying Paterson, NJ school that was in danger of being taken over unless the students raised their test scores. Waving a baseball bat on the steps of his school, Freeman uttered one of the most classic lines from the film: “They used to call me Crazy Joe. Now they can call me Batman!”

Stand And Deliver

He believed in them when everyone else wouldn’t. In Stand and Deliver, high school math teacher Jaime Escalante saw something in his predominantly Hispanic students. While others considered the gang members and students statistics, Escalante, played by Edward James Olmos, took it upon himself to come up with unconventional teaching methods to help his students pass the rigorous advance placement calculus exam. The 1988 film also stars Lou Diamond Phillips and Andy Garcia.

Dangerous Minds

Who could believe that one white woman could make a difference within a classroom filled with Black and Hispanic teenagers from the hood? In Dangerous Minds, Michelle Pfieffer played former U.S. marine-turned-high school teacher LouAnn Johnson. Using Bob Dylan lyrics to teach her students symbolism and metaphors, Johnson was able to eventually break through to them, much of the dismay of the school’s administration. The movie was originally panned by critics but it was so successful at the box office, it spawned a short-lived television show of the same name.

The Principal

James Belushi played divorced down-on-his-luck high school teacher with a drinking problem Rick Latimer, who was transferred to one of the worst schools in the district in The Principal. Seeing redemption for himself if he turned things around at his new job, Latimer started to see progress until he had to square off with gang leader student Victor. Literally. Lou Gossett, Jr. and Rae Dawn Chong rounded out the cast in this 1987 film.

Sister 2 Act: Back In the Habit

In the original movie, Sister Mary Clarence hid from a mob boss at a convent full of nuns, the second go ’round she was recruited to help her sisters save St. Francis High School by whipping the choir into shape. Based loosely on Crenshaw High School choir instructor Iris Stevenson, Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit introduced the world to budding singer/rapper Lauryn Hill who would go on to be one-third of the chart-topping group The Fugees before she would branch out on a solo career. The film also starred a young Jennifer Love Hewitt and Hill Harper.

Take The Lead

Why fight when you could foxtrot? Dance instructor Pierre Dulaine decided to turn after school detention into lessons in ballroom dancing in Take The Lead. Released in 2006, Antonio Banderas starred as the real life twinkle-toed instructor. His lessons helped unite the students, giving them a much-needed outlet to find and express themselves and even a chance to earn a cash prize of $5,000 at a local dance competition. Despite poor reviews from critics, the film, which co-starred Yaya DaCosta and Alfre Woodard, grossed over $30 million at the box office.

Music Of The Heart

The King of Scare, Wes Craven, is known for his horror films but the one time he stepped outside of the genre and directed a feel-good film, he earned his only Oscar nominations for any of his movies. Meryl Streep starred as Roberta Guaspari, who is hired as a substitute violin teacher for a school in the heart of Harlem in Music of the Heart. The music program enjoyed a successful 10-year run before it was threatened by budget cuts. Streep, who can seemingly do anything, learned how to play Bach’s “Concerto 2” for violins for the 1999 film.

Coach Carter

What’s more important to a high school basketball coach than an undefeated record? For Coach Carter, it’s passing grades. The real life coach made headlines in 1999 when he benched his entire team due to poor academic results and was the inspiration behind the film Coach Carter. Samuel L. Jackson played the title character in the 2005 movie, teaching his students that there were more important things than winning.

Dead Poets Society

Comedian Robin Williams is known for his physical comedy routines, but in some rare instances the funny man puts the jokes aside for more serious roles. One such role was English teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society. Keating used unconventional teaching methods to inspire his otherwise disinterested class about poetry. The 1989 film helped Williams earn an Oscar nomination for the role.

To Sir, With Love

While most films focus on a white teacher coming into a predominantly minority classroom and changing the lives of the Black and Hispanic students, To Sir, With Love flipped the script. Sidney Poitier starred in the 1967 film as an optimistic new teacher tasked with teaching white students from the slums of London’s East End. Poitier would reprise his role almost 30 years later in the 1996 sequel, To Sir, With Love II.

The Class

French language and literature school teacher Francois Begardeau was so inspired from his time in front of the classroom that he eventually wrote a semi-biographical novel of his account. The novel was turned into a film and Begardeau played himself in The Class. Begardeau was faced with the tough task to get his classroom of 14- and 15-year-olds interested in literature and writing. The Class, which was originally titled Entre Les Murs, was so well received, it won numerous awards and accolades both in France and internationally.

Won’t Back Down

In 2010, a law was passed in California and other states around the country that allowed parents to force administrative overhaul for underperforming schools. That was the premise of Won’t Back Down starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal who played two mothers willing to go up against the school and the city all for the sake of their children’s best interests. Davis, who was nominated for an Oscar for The Help, received an NAACP Image Award for her role in Won’t Back Down.

21 Jump Street

Holly Robinson Peete and Johnny Depp starred in the popular television series “21 Jump Street” as youthful-looking cops infiltrating troubled high schools and colleges. More than 20 years later, the show would be remade into a comedy film starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum. Hill and Tatum were forced to relive their high school days after going undercover at a Los Angeles high school to break up a synthetic drug ring. A hit at the box office, the sequel 22 Jump Street is expected to be released sometime in 2014.

Blackboard Jungle

He played a teacher with a heart of gold in To Sir, With Love in 1967, but 12 years before that Sidney Poitier had his breakout role as a troubled student in Blackboard Jungle. The film, which marked the rock-n-roll revolution by featuring the now infamous song “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets, focused on a teacher’s uphill battle to get his students, and the school staff, interested in education again. The film celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2005 with a DVD release.

Freedom Writers

Despite the recent L.A. race riots, new teacher Erin Gruwell was excited to begin her job at a recently integrated high school in Long Beach, CA. Played by Hilary Swank, Gruwell was determined to teach the “unteachables” in her classroom despite the obvious racial tensions between her students. The 2007 film Freedom Writers also co-starred the dreamy Patrick Dempsey and was based on a documentary about Gruwell for ABC’s “Primetime Live.”

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