In October 2007 I was grateful to be awarded a grant from the New-York-based Wallace Foundation to develop a documentary film and outreach project that would tell the complex story of principals turning around low-performing public schools with high percentages of low-income students. The goal was to create a film on the changing role of school leadership that would engage a national audience, look at on-the-ground examples of leadership that had resulted in improving schools and raising student achievement and convey the web of connections between principal leaders and students, teachers, district supervisors and school system executive officers.
That project presented many challenges to a filmmaker. It was essential that we find the right principals for this story — articulate principals who would provide unrestricted access to their daily activities and who were great at what they do. We wanted to show as many aspects as possible of a principal’s job, including how a principal professionally develops teachers, disciplines students, shapes the climate and culture of a school, manages the building, interacts with the central office, develops curriculum and works with parents. We also wanted to capture the layers of leadership within a school system, starting with the superintendent and moving down through the system to principal and teachers.
David and I researched many schools and pre-interviewed numerous principals before selecting our principals: Tresa Dunbar of Henry H. Nash Elementary School in Chicago (pre-K-8) and Kerry Purcell of Harvard Park Elementary School in Springfield, Ill. (K-5). As we filmed, we learned many things about the job of being a principal and the challenges of turning around a low-performing school. We were surprised by how dramatic a principal’s days are. Despite extensive planning and organizing, the nature of the job requires the principal to improvise and think quickly on her feet because unpredictable situations arise throughout the day. 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 in the streets and homes, I was never fully aware, until working on this project, of the devastating impact these circumstances have on a child’s ability to learn. How can a child focus on schoolwork when his or her mother was just incarcerated for selling drugs? Or his or her father is abusive? Or there never was a father to begin with? Or the grandmother who takes care of the child just died? How much more difficult is it for a principal to elevate test scores and improve education when so many kids come to school with so much untreated trauma?
This was our principals’ daily reality. In addition to knowing how to deal with the social and emotional needs of their students, principals must have a wide-ranging and impressive set of skills: setting and implementing a vision for the school; developing teachers and staff to improve what they do and help them become an effective part of the school’s learning community; managing a budget and acquiring and allocating resources to support children’s learning; reporting to administrators in a central office and delivering voluminous amounts of paperwork to them; and interacting with parents, school engineers and lunchroom workers.
There is also an element that is essential to the job of principal but cannot be taught — something that has to be a part of a principal’s core being. As Arne Duncan, then CEO of Chicago public schools and now U.S. secretary of education, states in the film, “At the end of the day, we look at the principal’s heart.” Principals call this element “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. It was inspiring to film the amazing principals that we followed. It gave me hope that, with more principals like them, we’ll have a chance of improving our education system. With improved education, we’ll have a chance of ending the cycle of poverty, community violence and domestic abuse.
Another issue we wrestled with was how to present our principals so they wouldn’t be compared to one another. We purposely chose two principals who were in different stages of their professional development. Kerry Purcell was a six-year veteran (when we started) and Tresa Dunbar was beginning her second year and was taking over a school that had been on probation for 12 years, so the learning curve was enormous. We realized that people watching the film might forget that Dunbar was a new principal and might, at times, unfairly compare her to Purcell. So we used our context cards to remind people that Dunbar was a novice, suggesting that she was a good principal in need of more experience before she becomes the great principal that we are confident she’ll become.
Throughout the making of this film, David and I learned many things about public education. In addition to seeing the importance of a principal’s skills and heart, we witnessed how tough it is to educate kids when their social and emotional needs are not being met and when their psyches have been traumatized. It has never been clearer that schools in low-income communities need to be more than schools: They need to provide emotional and social support for students and their families. In addition, principals, teachers and school administrators need better training and support, and incentives need to be offered to attract the best teachers and principals to the most challenging schools.
Abraham Lincoln once stated, “Upon the subject of education . . . I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people may be engaged in.” The bottom line is that we need political leaders with the will to make education the nation’s top priority. If that happens, then rest assured, our public schools will improve.
Tod Lending — Executive Producer, Producer, Director, Cinematographer