For Paula Dofat, it’s a surreal experience to look up at the silver screen at the new documentary STEP, to see herself and the students she’s been counselling from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women tell their story.
For everyone else who sees the film, the experience will be inspiring.
“I never in my life expected to see us in a movie,” Dofat explained, following a special screening of STEP in Boston. “It’s strange, but it’s also very humbling. All I can do is stare.”
Directed by Amanda Lipitz, STEP tells the true-life story of an all-girls’ high-school step team set against the background of the heart of Baltimore. Empowered by their teachers, teammates, counselors, coaches, and families, they chase their ultimate dreams: to win a step championship and to be accepted into college.
“I was on a step team in college, so I understand the significance of what these young women are doing,” said Dofat. “Step isn’t just a dance routine; it’s part of their culture that dates back to Africa, before their relatives were brought to this country as slaves. It’s way of communicating with their audience as much as it is a celebration of their culture.”
Dofat is a strong supporter of the STEP team—she can be seen in the audience at just about every competition in the movie. She has the particularly critical job to help every student in the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women find a college that will be the right fit—socially, academically, and even financially. In the film, she is seen guiding students through the enervating application process and speaking to them honestly about what is realistic.
“I was a first-generation student who received very little guidance or support from my guidance counselor because I wasn’t in the top of my graduating class. My parents could not help me; they did not know what to do because they had never been to college. As a result, I ended up being a ‘serial’ transfer student, racked up enormous student debt, dropped out of college, and then finished my bachelor and master degrees in my forties,” said Dofat. “Realizing all this could have been avoided with the right support system, it became my mission to make sure as many students as possible did not experience what I went through.”
Watching Dofat work with each individual student is, in its own way, as exciting as watching the STEP team work out a new routine because they are all willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. For Dofat, that can mean everything from home visits to making sure parents and students have her cell phone number to reach out mornings, nights, and even weekends.
“I remember the first time a student asked me for my cellphone number. I told her ‘no,’” Dofat said. “She told me that’s how they do things at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, and she was right. It’s a totally open form of communication between students, teachers, and parents—unlike anything I’ve experienced before in this profession, and it’s critically important. Communication is a key factor.”
Dofat takes pride in the fact that the school guarantees 100% college acceptance, all juniors are enrolled in a pre-college residential summer program and that the top seniors have the option to visit their first out of state college choice paid for by the school. The school also partners with local college financial aid counselors to ensure that all the graduating seniors complete FAFSA.
“The young woman in the movie are our first graduating class, and I’m extremely proud of all they have achieved. But it doesn’t stop there,” Dofat said. “My goal for the next class isn’t just 100 percent college acceptance, but 100 percent scholarships for every one of them. That’s my personal goal for every girl graduating from this school: College with a full scholarship.”