A conversation with producers Noel Gunther and Christian Lindstrom
Q: Why is reading such a problem in America? How can it be that nearly 40 percent of fourth graders read below the "basic" level?
NG: There are lots of reasons. Some children are already "at risk" before
they even arrive at school. That may be because their parents haven't read
to them and haven't even talked with them very often. It may be because
the child has missed out on preschool and the early literacy experiences
offered there. So kids walk into first grade not knowing how to hold a
book or what a book is for.
It may be that the child has a native language other than English and has
had little exposure to the sounds and structure of the English language.
CL: And many children struggle because their schools just don't know
enough about reading so the material is never taught well. We can't
expect kids to learn what they've never been taught. Finally, many
children have reading disabilities and need more intensive and more
skillful intervention than their schools may be providing.
The good news is that all but a very small number of children can be
taught to be successful readers if the schools intervene early and
Q: What does "below basic" mean?
NG: It means that a child can't read well enough to understand a simple
story, or he can barely read at all.
Q: What happens if kids don't learn to read well?
CL: They're at high risk for emotional problems, depression, drug abuse
and almost every form of social pathology. As one principal said to us: "A
kid who can't read soon starts kicking the kid who can."
Q: What does A Tale of Two Schools tell us that we didn't know before?
NG: It shows, on an intimate, personal scale, what it takes to teach a
child who's at risk, and what it really takes to turn a school around. We
spent an entire year delving into the lives of the parents, teachers,
principals and kids, seeing what works and what doesn't. We were struck by
the fragility of the progress in these schools, even when they seem to be
doing everything right. Tavares, the first grader we focused on at Walton, was
just getting on a roll in the fall and then his father's car broke
down, and Tavares missed a whole week of school. In Mississippi, the superintendent, Reggie Barnes, spent years raising the money to build a playground, a
health clinic and some new classrooms at his school and then felt
devastated when the county decided to close two of the three public
CL: So even at a well-run school like Walton, it's never easy. You need
effective leadership, a reasonable amount of money, a coordinated approach
to reading, sustained teacher training, involved parents and teachers
who genuinely believe in the kids. As we say in the film, you need all the
stars to align. In low-income schools, that seldom happens. And you need
an incredible will to keep going in the face of overwhelming challenges.
Q: How did you choose Bearden and Walton to profile in the documentary?
NG: We were looking for two schools that would dramatize the challenges
facing schools in poor communities and also illustrate how those
challenges could be overcome. Our project advisors, who are nationally
recognized experts in reading, helped us identify dozens of schools across
the country that might make good candidates. We were interested in states
that had begun some type of statewide reform effort, which led us to Texas
and Mississippi. And we decided early on to focus on Title I schools,
where at least half the children are from low-income families.
Most important, we wanted to feature schools that were in the middle of
making big changes. We weren't really interested in finding the shining
star among poor neighborhood schools that for years has had exceptional
performance. We wanted a school with a history of failure that was in the
process of turning around. We wanted to see the hard work of change
happening before our eyes, so that people could see what it takes.
Q: What is the overall message you are trying to deliver?
CL: We'd like to show that in all schools, the children can learn and
that struggling schools can and must change the way they teach reading.
Q: If so many children are having problems learning to read, why profile two schools that are so challenged? Why not show middle-income children struggling?
NG: We could have picked a middle or upper income neighborhood school,
because there are definitely children struggling at these schools, too.
But we wanted to showcase schools that were able to achieve success in
reading in spite of facing incredible challenges. We didn't want a
struggling school to watch this show and say, "If I had that kind of
budget, my kids would read, too!" We wanted people to see that if Bearden
and Walton can turn themselves around, their school can, too.
Q: There must be many schools that fit into these categories. What was it about these two particular schools that caught your eye?
NG: Bearden in the Mississippi Delta had been one of the worst
schools in the state for years, but it seemed to be getting better. A year
before we arrived, Bearden had adopted a systematic approach to reading.
They had hired an energetic new administrative team. Mississippi itself
had just begun a statewide reform, which we thought might make a
difference at Bearden. And just before we began taping, Bearden received a
$200,000 grant from Jim Barksdale, former head of Netscape, to train teachers and buy reading
materials for classrooms and the kids' homes. We were very excited about
following this school that seemed poised to break through the stereotypes
about the Mississippi Delta and poor schools in general.
Walton, like Bearden, had struggled for years. Then, in 1994, the school
hired a determined new principal Leonard Brasfield who worked steadily to turn things around.
Walton adopted a systematic reading program, and it seemed to make a
difference. When we arrived, Walton's state test scores had become
"acceptable," which was a big step over the previous "low performing"
rating. Now Walton wanted to become "recognized," which means having 80
percent of the students passing statewide tests in reading and math. What
would it take to get that many more children reading well? Walton had
taken on some of the same challenges as Bearden, but it was several more
years down the path of reform.
CL: And finally: to make a show with impact, we needed compelling
characters. Both schools Walton and Bearden had superstar
personalities. Reggie Barnes
at Bearden Elementary and Vanessa Kemp at Walton are passionate about their work about children and
they are able to convey that passion on camera. The power of their
personalities comes through in our film. They are the reasons a viewer
might think: "Our kids deserve better."
Q: Does the film advocate a specific reading curriculum?
NG: No, though each school has embraced a pre-packaged reading program.
There are many good reading programs out there. The hard part is training
the teachers to use the program well and making sure that the program is
coordinated throughout the school. What doesn't work, as one principal
said, is having eleven teachers in eleven different boats, rowing very
hard in eleven different directions.
Q: What happened to Tavares?
CL: A Tale of Two Schools ends on a happy note for Tavares, which is a
reality for some kids. As he finished first grade, he seemed to be on his
way to becoming a good reader. But what happened after that wasn't so
encouraging. His father moved to a new neighborhood, with a less
accomplished school, and Tavares has struggled both academically and
NG: Transience is a huge problem for kids like Tavares. What happened to
him shows how fragile progress can be for poor kids. If parents move or
split up, if the kid gets a bad teacher, if the home support falls off,
suddenly one star is out of alignment, and the child is once again at
severe risk. So even while we celebrate Tavares's success at Walton, we're
mindful that it's going to take a long, persistent effort by his parents
and teachers before he is really in the clear.