A Tale of Two Schools is an intimate story about children at risk and the parents and teachers who care about them. Morgan Freeman narrates this compelling one-hour documentary about a dedicated superintendent, a novice teacher, and a first grader overwhelmed by the challenge of learning to read all captured during a tumultuous year in two struggling schools.
You could almost forgive superintendent Reggie Barnes if he gave up on the kids in his Mississippi Delta district. Nearly everyone else has. The problems faced by schools around the country are amplified in West Tallahatchie. Low pay? Salaries are among the worst in the country. Needy kids? 95% of the students are on a free lunch program. Indifferent parents? Ten people came to Bearden Elementary first PTA meeting. It’s no wonder many of the children can barely read.
Bearden sits in the middle of a cotton field, as if to say to the children: “Nothing will ever change.” Barnes, though, thinks otherwise. He’s committed to the point of obsession, working late every night to recruit new teachers, to raise money, to motivate his staff. In the face of overwhelming problems, Bearden is slowly becoming a better school. We’ll watch Superintendent Barnes and first year teacher Jill Todd as they try to change a desolate environment into a place where children at last have a chance to learn.
At Walton Elementary in inner city Fort Worth, Texas, the challenges are almost as great. Kids stream in from housing projects in the shadow of an interstate highway. “We have children at Walton who don’t know the alphabet,” says Vanessa Kemp, the lead teacher. “They can’t write their name. They don’t know how to open up a book. They don’t even know what a book is for.”
Ms. Kemp and the staff at Walton have been focused on reading instruction for five years and the results have been dramatic. Walton historically was one of the worst schools in Texas, but now it’s striving for an “exemplary” rating the highest grade a school can earn. Yet even now, nothing happens automatically. At Wal;ton, we’ll focus on a single child energetic but unprepared first grader Tavares Gross to show how even a strong school must struggle to help kids who can’t read.
Bearden and Walton are hardly alone. Around the country, in all income groups, children are having trouble learning to read. And if a child can’t read well by the end of first grade, odds are that he will never catch up. “Reading is the gateway skill,” says Phyllis Hunter, who led a major reform effort in Houston. “I call it ‘the new civil right’ because children can’t access their other rights … unless they can read and read well.”
We spent an entire year at Bearden and Walton, delving into the lives of parents, teachers, principals, and children, asking one question: What does it take to teach a child to read? Ultimately, A Tale of Two Schools is an intimate story about children at risk and the parents and teachers who care about them. It’s a story of hope, of faith, and of the power of a committed adult to help shape the life of a child.
A Tale of Two Schools is part of the initiative Reading Rockets, a national multimedia project from public television station WETA that gives parents and educators the tools they need to support America’s young readers.