The Principal Story captures a year in the life of two dynamic public school principals in Illinois. Veteran principal Kerry Purcell has led Harvard Park Elementary in the state capital of Springfield for six years; Tresa D. Dunbar, Ph.D., is in her second year as principal at Chicago’s Henry H. Nash Elementary on the city’s tough west side. They differ in temperament, age, race and experience. Yet they share a striking demographic challenge: Their students are overwhelmingly from low-income families. At Harvard Park, the number is 87%. At Nash, virtually every student — a shocking 98% of the student body — comes from a low-income family. With this fact come a host of familiar problems — lack of funding, teacher turnover, low attendance rates, low test scores and the corresponding lures of drugs, gangs and violence.
Fortunately, as The Principal Story makes clear, Purcell and Dunbar share a couple of other things, too. One is an irrepressible determination to see that poverty doesn’t prevent their students from getting a good education. The other is an uncanny knack for delivering on that determination.
The Principal Story, by award-winning filmmakers Tod Lending (Omar & Pete, POV 2005) and David Mrazek, has its national broadcast premiere Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009, at 10:30 p.m. on PBS as part of the 22nd season of POV. (Check local listings.) American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, POV is the winner of a Special Emmy for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking. The series continues through Tuesday, Sept. 22 at 10 p.m. and returns with specials on Wednesday, Nov. 11 and Wednesday, Dec. 30.
The Principal Story offers two real-life suspense stories in one. In six years at Harvard Park (pre-K through fifth grade), Purcell has taken a school where student behavior was out of hand, test scores were “in the gutter” and staff morale was low, and dramatically increased attendance, test scores and order in the classrooms. The numbers alone show her success. Yet the numbers can be treacherous under policies that emphasize uniform test results, such as the No Child Left Behind Act. With success, “the standards keep going up,” as Purcell ruefully notes. In her sixth year at Harvard Park, rather than resting on her laurels, she faces the daunting task of raising the students’ proficiency rates in reading and math from 65% to 95%.
Principal Tresa Dunbar sits in Ms. Dubin’s first grade class.
At Nash Elementary (pre-K through eighth grade), second-year principal Dunbar faces a particularly dire situation. The school has been on probation for 12 years and on the academic watch list for eight, and it had gone through six principals in five years before appointing the former assistant principal (who returned to the school after multi-year principal training) as principal. In her first year, Dunbar barely began rallying the teaching staff and reaching out to her students and their families. Now the challenge is stark — if she and her staff cannot significantly raise test scores this year, Nash Elementary will be closed.
Against this background, Lending and Mrazek have crafted an intimate, vérité-style account of each principal’s year as she deals with a dizzying array of students, teachers, parents, school staff and school district officials. All the deeper qualities these two women share become apparent — buoyant dedication, rapport with the students and a sympathetic focus on teacher development and support. “The teacher is the single most important factor in a student’s success,” says Purcell without hesitation. Dunbar understands this as well as anyone. Having inherited a teaching staff she figures is no more than 35% effective — and with 12 new teachers on the rolls — she knows that the key to saving Nash is teacher development.
Many principals are perceived as remote figures, but The Principal Story reveals Purcell and Dunbar to be in constant contact with both students and teachers — and in constant motion. They are literally hands-on leaders, working punishing hours, including participation in extra-curricular support programs for teachers and students. They also keep their staffs engaged in ongoing self-examination, as both women are determined to use data on student performance to improve classroom and administrative effectiveness. Perhaps the most remarkable feature shared by Purcell and Dunbar is their striking ability to show sympathy, understanding and affection without compromising their authority with teachers or students.
In The Principal Story, the futures of two schools and their hundreds of students hang in the balance. Yet the struggles at Harvard Park and Nash — and the successes forged by Purcell and Dunbar — lay bare the crises afflicting much of American public education. In those crises, the futures of millions of public school students — of public education itself — and of the nation certainly hang in the balance.
“David Mrazek and I learned many things about the job of being a principal and the challenges of turning around a low-performing school,” says co-producer/co-director Lending. “We were surprised by how dramatic a principal’s days are. We were struck by the plethora of problems that kids would bring to school. Even though I’ve spent years filming in low-income communities where violence and social dysfunction are rampant, I was never so aware, until this project, of the devastating impact these circumstances have on a child’s ability to learn.
“Something that cannot be taught is essential to the principal’s job,” Lending adds. “Principals call it ‘heart-work.’ In making this film, I learned that it takes a tremendous amount of passion, love and ‘heart-work’ to be a good principal.”
“For better or worse, a school is the sum of its many complicated but essential parts,” adds Mrazek, Lending’s producing and directing partner. “It is our hope that the film and related outreach video and print materials can be utilized by public television stations, national partners and other outreach participants to generate dialogue and build awareness about the importance of education leadership and the role of principals as instructional leaders. It is not just a case of needing more resources, but for people to ‘think differently,’ to paraphrase the old Apple ad. Our featured principals say it a lot, but it bears saying again: Those working in education have to make decisions based on putting children first. With that mantra in mind, you can’t go wrong.”
The Principal Story is a production of Nomadic Pictures with Funding from The Wallace Foundation.
To learn more about the principals, the schools and the national outreach campaign, visit The Wallace Foundation site.