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Soledad O’Brien’s CNN project comes to Twin Cities to focus on the education of black boys

The latest episode in O’Brien’s ongoing documentary series “Black in America,” “Great Expectations” will debut at 9 p.m. on Aug. 30.

A video promoting the CNN special “Great Expectations.”

Have you ever wondered what Minneapolis’ hottest education polemics look like to an outsider? If you’re a close follower of the discussion locally about gaps — in achievement, opportunity and capacity — you’re going to want to go set your DVR for “Great Expectations” later this month.

It turns out Soledad O’Brien and CNN have had a TV crew here for the last year in the network of schools operated by Harvest Prep founder Eric Mahmoud, as well as talking to the adults who have differing ideas on the most effective ways of reaching low-income learners.

The latest episode in O’Brien’s ongoing documentary series “Black in America,” “Great Expectations” will debut at 9 p.m. on Aug. 30. It will focus specifically on the education of black boys, with O’Brien’s crew following several individual children.

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If you’ve ever wanted to take a peek inside a school built around a no-excuses culture, this is a golden opportunity. O’Brien isn’t known for pulling punches, and publicity for the episode suggests she puts hard questions both to Mahmoud’s fans and detractors alike.  

Series began in 2008

A little background if you’re not familiar with the series: Airing in July 2008, the first two-part “Black in America” installment took a provocative look at the culture of African-American families in the United States. In part because O’Brien asks questions about topics that are infrequently aired before white audiences, it drew a record viewership.

If the video trailer that’s available on the series’ Facebook page is any indication, this month’s installment will be no exception. Mahmoud describes both the urgency of the problem and his belief that it’s a bridge-able gap. In the two-minute clip O’Brien goes straight for some of the thorniest questions, asking him whether high-performing charters such as his have re-segregated schools.

Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson opines that the worst of the gaps involves our collective expectations regarding black boys: “They’ve risen to the level we’ve expected them to,” she tells the camera.

Union leader and charter critic included

Other voices heard include Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) and her MFT predecessor and charter critic Robert Panning-Miller.

Executive Director of the African American Leadership Forum and a former MPS board member, Chris Stewart was interviewed, but has yet to learn whether his remarks will be included in the broadcast. Word got out that the crew was here after cameras showed up at a contentious school board meeting and people began demanding a say, he said.

More interesting to him than whether his mug makes the cut is how O’Brien’s choices in terms of topics and subjects have begun linking African-American leaders who have success stories to share throughout the country.

“She seems intent on pursuing this,” said Stewart. “It’s like she’s building this network of African-Americans nationwide who are seeing each other do good work.”