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Lean on Me (1989) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

clark school students principal

Principal social themes: education/literacy, racism/civil rights

Warner Brothers. PG-13 rating. Featuring: Morgan Freeman, Beverly Todd, Robert Guillaume, Alan North, Lynne Thigpen, Robin Bartlett, Michael Beach, Ethan Phillips, Sandra Reaves-Phillips, Ivonne Coll, Karina Arroyave, Jermaine Hopkins, Karen Malina White, Sloane Shelton. Written by Michael Schiffer. Cinematography by Victor Hammer. Edited by John Carter and John G. Avildsen. Music by Bill Conti. Produced by Norman Twain. Directed by John G. Avildsen. Color. 109 minutes.


Joe Clark became one of the most famous educators in America during the 1980s, best known for revitalizing the rundown Eastside High School in Paterson, New Jersey, and raising it to the standard of a model school just two years after his appointment as principal. He was later voted among the top ten principals in the country. The screen version of how Clark transformed Eastside High was quite influential, and numerous college education programs included it in their curriculum. When Clark himself is questioned about the film, he comments, “I think they toned me down.”


The film opens with a portrayal of a young, colorfully dressed black teacher, Joe Clark (Morgan Freeman) at Eastside High in 1967. He ruffles some feathers with his kinetic style, so he is transferred to a grammar school. Twenty years later, the mayor of Paterson faces a crisis when the state of New Jersey threatens to take control of any high school that continually fails the basic skills test. Only 38 percent of Eastside High students passed this exam, the lowest score in the state. The school superintendent recommends that Joe Clark be installed as principal, the only educator in the city with the grit to turn things around. Eastside High is shown to be in chaos. The corridors are lined with graffiti. Students are hassled by various cliques. Drug dealers enter and leave the school at will peddling their goods.

When Joe Clark assumes his post as principal, he ignores the pleasantries from the staff and starts to issue orders in a semimilitary fashion. He directs the maintenance department to repaint the school’s interiors, with a standing order to paint over any new graffiti within twenty-four hours. He asks the teachers to prepare lists of any drug dealers or incorrigible troublemakers in the student body. Clark reviews the lists and selects three hundred for expulsion. He challenges the students to concentrate on basic skills, particularly reading. It is the essential goal of the school that 70 percent pass the next state exam testing these skills. To build morale, Clark insists that every student also learn the school song. He later fires the music teacher, one of the most highly regarded members of the staff, because he believes she is resisting his efforts. He suspends the most popular black teacher for a minor infraction. One of the expelled students implores Clark to reinstate him. Clark questions him sharply before finally relenting and giving the youngster another chance. The school superintendent warns Clark that he is alienating people who could be his allies. At a parent’s meeting, Clark runs afoul of Leona Barrett, a local black activist, for expelling so many students. Barrett vows to remove Clark as principal and tries to enlist the mayor in her efforts. He tries to placate her with an appointment to the school board, but her main goal remains Clark’s dismissal.

Clark has an open door policy so that any student may visit him and discuss any problems. In private, the principal becomes understanding and helpful. If trouble at home interferes with the student, he visits the parents and offers practical solutions to assist them. Slowly, the school’s spirit begins to change. One real challenge happens when drug dealers continue to barge into the school, let in by their clients. Clark responds by chaining the school doors while classes are in session. This gives Leona Barrett an opening to catch Clark in a fire code violation. The city attorney, however, tips off Clark about this plan. Clark prepares an emergency announcement, Code Ten, to alert teachers to remove the chains whenever the fire chief shows up. Just before the state exam, Clark holds an assembly in which he addresses all students, the black majority and the white and Hispanic minorities, telling them that they all are in same boat. He fires their enthusiasm, and the entire staff and student body sing “Lean on Me.” When the exam is given, each student puts forth his or her best effort.

The fire chief eventually catches Clark with the chains on the doors, and he is arrested. Barrett holds a school board meeting calling for Clark’s dismissal. The entire student body holds a rally outside City Hall, shouting “Free Joe Clark!” The mayor visits Clark in jail and asks him to tell the students to disperse. Barrett tries to address the students, saying they will get a better principal. They shout her down, but one of the teachers shows up with the test results: Eastside students passed with flying colors. The confrontation turns into a celebration, as this announcement assures that the school board will retain Clark in his position and that the legal case against him will be dismissed.


The screen treatment of Joe Clark’s struggle at Eastside is partially fictionalized, particularly with the personalities portrayed on screen such as the mayor and the members of the staff. There is also a time discrepancy, since Clark was actually appointed principal in 1983, not 1987 as in the film. However, most of the incidents and Clark’s hardnosed approach to education are factual. He did indeed expel three hundred students shortly after taking over as principal. He did chain the exit doors during the school day to keep out drug dealers, and this procedure did lead to conflicts with the fire department and elements of the community. Without a doubt Lean on Me presents a controversial approach to education. Students viewing the film could debate many aspects of it. What are the advantages and disadvantages of Clark’s methods? What is his philosophy of education? Is it worth the price to expel 10 percent of the student body if it allows the remaining 90 percent to receive a proper education? What happens to those he expels? The film itself shows one student petitioning Clark to be allowed to return. In actuality, several dozen did return to school to become successful students. The controversy over the locked school doors was resolved; with the installation of new doors that would sound an alarm if opened during school hours. Is Clark fair to his teaching staff? To what extent is Clark a role model? If not, why not? Could a white principal have instituted Clark’s get-tough policy? The film mentions in passing Eastside’s literacy outreach program to the community. How important are efforts of this kind in the overall mandate of an inner city high school? The title Lean on Me suggests a team effort, yet testing by its nature is competitive. Does Clark effectively inspire the students to be mentally prepared to compete? After serving seven years at Eastside High, Clark went on to other challenges, becoming one of the leading motivational speakers on the topic of education.

Learning Networks - INTRODUCTION, BACKGROUND, Shift from Bureaucracies to Networks, Shift from Training and Development to Learning [next] [back] Leakey, Mary (Douglas)

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almost 6 years ago

I am curious to find out what the actually passing test score was? In the movie the practice test scored a 33% of students passing and then at the end of the movie it was clear that the school passed and they needed 75% - but they never told us the percentage of students that passed. Do you know or do you know how I could find out that information? Thank you very much!