Tribeca alum Dan Chen challenges our perceptions. Can we believe what we see or is that joy on YouTube videos manufactured. If you’ve been on any social media, you’ve probably been exposed to the videos of high school students celebrating their acceptance into colleges of their choice. You might have even shared them without a second thought.
The Washington Post collected a series of such videos from a certain school in Louisiana. The teens were all photogenic. They, their friends and their family were well dressed. The object of the attention just happened to be wearing a sweatshirt or hoodie with the name of an Ivy League school. Could things get better than this?
I do know something about colleges, having attended more than a dozen. I was, however, not focused on a specific school. I wasn’t a particularly ambitious student and never a thought of applying to an Ivy League university. I wanted to study art; I wanted to stay in California, and I wanted to move out of the house. Like the students at TM Landry Prep School which according to the Tribeca festival notes is in rural Louisiana, I grew up semi-rural, but in California with a field of tomatoes a block away. My mother had grown up on a local tomato and cucumber farm that we visited to glean the fields, traveling down dirt roads. Neither my father or mother had finished college but all of us finished with a bachelors.
Unlike the Landry Prep School kids, I went to a public school. It’s important to note that TM Landry Prep School is not accredited. TM Landry boasts a 100 percent college acceptance for their ambitious and underprivileged high school students. Looking at the fees, I have to wonder just how “underprivileged” these students are. Registration for pre-kindergarten through 9th grade is $525 and the monthly tuition is $575. The monthly tuition for 10th grade is $625, 11th is $675 and 12th grade is $725 (new students in the 2017-2018 year). That’s certainly more than my mother could have afforded as a clerical worker in a public school.
Chen’s documentary lures you into the web the charismatic claims and apparent success of the school’s founder, Mike Landry. You look at those videos of well-dressed kids getting notifications that they’re in and share their joy. For parents, those videos were hope. The four juniors that the documentary “Accepted” focuses on, Alicia, Adia, Isaac and Cathy, start out filled with enthusiasm for going academically beyond their original self-imposed limitations. The YouTube videos brought Landry social media fame, but also national scrutiny.
The New York Times’ Erica L. Green and Katie Benner wrote an article in 2018 “Louisiana School Made Headlines Sending Black Kids to Elite Colleges: T.M. Landry, a school in small-town Louisiana, has garnered national attention for vaulting its underprivileged black students to elite colleges. But the school cut corners and doctored college applications,” 30 November 2018) that made charges against TM Landry Prep School’s founders, Michael and Tracey Landry. Some of those charges were verified: There had been charges of physical violence against students at TM Landry. Then there were other charges of fraud.
According to the New York Times article, the first graduating class of TM Landry only had 50 students with mixed results. Some faltered badly and began to wonder about the education their parents had paid for at TM Landry. Tracy Landry has a nursing degree. Michael Landry was a certified teacher from 2002 to 2004. TM Landry began as a homeschooling effort in 2005. National attention brought in donations, but TM Landry puts those into a general funds.
In April of 2018, another college admissions scandal was starting. A Los Angeles businessman, Morrie Tobin, gave information on a case that would become Operation Varsity Blues, named after a 1999 coming-of-age film about a Texas small town football team. Operation Varsity Blues involved bribery and fraud for thousands of dollars to get rich kids into colleges and universities, including Yale and USC.
The fraud included false information on transcripts, about test scores and about sports participation. According to the New York Times article, something similar was happening at TM Landry. Transcripts were fluidly dependent upon being in good graces, socially and financially with the Landrys. They might record false information about participation in sports or classes. And, the narrative about the students personal lives might play up on the stereotype of a tragic broken family. TM Landry students might not be able to pay the big bucks bribes, but they can pull out the sob stories to play liberal heart strings.
Chen’s documentary which made its world premiere on 12 June 2021, is set during the 2019 year at TM Landry Prep School. That is pre-pandemic, with the FBI investigation on-going. The New York Times reported on 2 June 2019 that the FBI was investigating. Chen’s “Accepted” makes clear that TM Landry increased the aspirational reach of its students, but Chen’s documentary and the New York Times article questions the efficacy of his methods and whether the TM Landry way of schooling really prepares its students for success in college or life.