What does the T.M. Landry scandal say about American education?

T.M. Landry seniors
"Accepted" follows students in the 2018 senior class at T.M. Landry just as scandal engulfs the school and their lives are upended. Film still courtesy Jubilee Media

Late one evening, students at T.M. Landry College Prep surround Michael Landry as he begins one of his sermon-like speeches.

“Come on y’all, we in Breaux Bridge. Nobody expects you to do anything. And for you to leave your mark, you’re going to have to do something that other people say cannot be accomplished,” Landry says.

The 2018 scene, depicted in the documentary Accepted, culminates with the school’s rallying cry. He asks students to say, ‘I love you,’ in various languages and, finally, in his own language.

How do you say I love you in “Mike-anese?” One word: kneel.

Accepted, released to streaming platforms this month after a year on the film festival circuit, follows students in the 2018 senior class at T.M. Landry just as scandal engulfs the school and their lives are upended. Originally conceived by the filmmakers as a profile of something going right in education, the documentary instead grapples with the impact of the school’s convulsions and explores the lengths students will go for success.

T.M. Landry first made national headlines by sending disadvantaged and mostly Black children to Ivy League schools and top universities across America. Viral acceptance videos put the school on the map, and through countless interviews on daytime talk shows, Michael and Tracy Landry claimed they figured out the key to success.

But an investigation by The New York Times suggested it was all too good to be true, raising allegations that put the school in a totally different kind of spotlight.

Those same viral videos were what brought director Dan Chen and his team to T.M. Landry. His crew was in the middle of production when the Times story was published.

“We were looking for positive, inspirational stories to tell, especially about young people, especially stories about minorities,” Chen says, “the story of what the school was trying to do: rewrite societal expectations for these mostly Black and brown kids in rural Louisiana, giving them opportunities to access these elite American institutions. We were really invested.”

The team was immediately pulled in by the school, notes Chen. Mike Landry is energetic, if eccentric. And the school he and his wife started from the kitchen of their home makes for a compelling story.

Accepted captures Landry’s charisma, emotional sermons and all. But its focus is trained squarely on the students, and the impact the school and the scandal would have on them.

Looking back, Chen says he did not see any warning signs of what was to come.

The team bounced back between Los Angeles, Breaux Bridge and Lafayette. They spent a week or two filming the students before a group of former teachers, parents and students and informed Chen’s team of a litany of troubling allegations: falsified transcripts and manipulated ACT scores, embellished applications and physical abuse by Mike Landry. Not long after came the November 2018 Times investigative piece that blew the scandal wide open. Filming stopped immediately.

“We felt we had been telling a story that was no longer accurate,” Chen says, “and we wanted to help if the allegations are true.”

The team kept in contact with the group of parents and students. They still wanted Chen to finish the film.

The story became messier and much more complex. Filming was tricky, Chen says. Landry no longer wanted media in the school. The film’s narrative switched gears, but the filmmakers embraced the messiness.

“The ultimate goal we have with the film is to complicate people’s views on the world and to help people ask a question about the system that they live in,” Chen says.

“T. M. Landry was gaming a system that is already being gamed by these more powerful and rich people,” Chen remarks. “What is education supposed to be? Is it about knowledge and teaching … or is it a game where you try to get the best school name possible so that you can get the best job possible.”

No formal charges have been brought against the school. Mike Landry pleaded guilty to simple battery in 2013 after being accused of beating a student at the school. The status of ongoing federal and Louisiana State Police investigations into the practices of the school is unclear.

The film’s goal was never to judge the families and students of T.M Landry. Fundamentally, Chen believes the students put in the hard work. Instead, he hopes Accepted can spark conversations about our education system and how colleges operate.

It takes aim at a bigger picture through the students’ stories — whether the school and schools like it lead students with a false image of meritocracy in America. 

T.M. Landry student Alicia Simon
Alicia Simon, one of the T.M. Landry students profiled in “Accepted.”

“The idea of meritocracy is hard work equals success, and hard work equals success in exactly the way you imagined it will be. I also don’t want to discount or discourage people from working hard… a lot of the students in the film say there were aspects of the school that did put them in a better direction. There are no easy answers,” Chen says.

T.M. Landry Board Chairman Greg Davis, who appears in the documentary, has continued to defend the school, claiming the Times article was misinformed.

Davis, a local civil rights advocate with a long history in education, maintains the school never falsified transcripts, embellished applications or fluffed ACT scores. Davis says T.M. Landry students never took ACTs administered by the school, as alleged. Rather, the students traveled to LSU and UL to take the test.

Davis also pushes back on the film’s central theme: that meritocracy itself might be an illusion.

“If you have lots and lots of money, I think that it’s possible for you to game the system,” Davis says. “But I can assure you we did not have and do not have lots and lots of money. Our parents were struggling working families.”

Davis became involved with the school in 2016 after finding what he believes is an example of the kind of education reform he has advocated for since the 1980s.

“My belief was that Black children were capable of the highest levels of academic achievement,” Davis says. “T.M. Landry does not follow the traditional education model for education in Louisiana. It uses a radically different method. … It has gotten Black children into America’s top universities.”

Davis questions the motives of the teachers who approached the Times, claiming they intended to tarnish the school’s reputation for their own benefit.

Indeed the school’s success was derailed by the Times story and the coverage that followed. At the time, T.M. Landry was planning to expand to Baton Rouge, Davis says. Now the school’s Lafayette and Breaux Bridge locations are shuttered, and it’s running out of Mike Landry’s home. Enrollment has shrunk severely.

“The community does not believe that Black [children], especially Black children that are zoned for poor Black schools, are capable of the highest academic achievement,” Davis says. “The reputation of T.M. Landry was destroyed. I’ll be honest with you, to most people in Lafayette right now man, Black people and white people, T.M. Landry is a scumbag,” he adds.

Accepted offers an intimate moment of reflection as students head to college or choose to take time off to reconfigure. The film puts their testimonies front and center, as they probe for meaning in what they went through.

“Too often in our society, we view education of Black children as a philanthropic enterprise. We see education as a gift to be bestowed upon Black students instead of as a public good to be accessed,” writes T.M. Landry graduate Alicia Simon, one the students profiled in the film, in her college essay.

“We celebrate miracle schools as a remedy for centuries of inequality, casting away all criticisms. T.M. Landry was supposed to be the remedy to America’s education crisis but it actually turned out to be part of the problem.”