At Newark, N.J.’s JFK High School, the staff answers the phone by saying, “You’ve reached John F. Kennedy High School, Newark’s best-kept secret.” It doesn’t take long watching the new documentary Best Kept Secret to see why. Hardly anyone would expect an inner-city public school to be able to marshal the innovative programs, exceptional teachers and passionate commitment that JFK brings to its special-needs students. The film focuses on the school’s work with students with autism, who are characterized by difficulties with language and social interaction. The staff is not content only to give these students survival skills. They fight a tough, daily battle to open students up to the world. As teacher Janet Mino, puts it, “If I can teach you to take care of yourself . . . I can teach you to express yourself.” JFK High just may be one of the country’s best-kept secrets.
But the remarkable efforts of the school come with an expiration date. Its students, who can enter at age 10, are “aged out” at 21. Parents and teachers call it “falling off the cliff,” because of the scarcity of continuing adult education programs and accommodations. In 2012, Mino faces the prospect of her entire class of six young men going off that cliff, and she begins a desperate search for alternatives to homebound idleness, institutionalization or homelessness for her graduating students.
Mino is the focus of Best Kept Secret, and her work with three of her students—Robert, Erik and Quran—and their families forms the drama of the film. Mino is tough, energetic and mentally on the job 24/7. She has bottomless reserves of patience and compassion for her students. One of the pleasures of the film is seeing the determination and optimism Mino and her fellow teachers bring to unrelenting daily challenges.