Last night I was invited up on the stage (along with three other educators and a moderator) after a screening in Irvine, where I live, of Won't Back Down, a new movie that opens today. The movie is billed as having been "inspired by actual events", some of which I have lived through, and I have been asked by several people, including a friend who conceived the Parent Trigger legislation that parallels, in some ways, the fictitious legislation that enables the two moms to take over the struggling elementary school in the film, what I thought of the movie; so I will here offer a brief review. Readers may be surprised to know that I worked for five years in the film industry before I went back, more permanently, to my other career, in education.
I am possibly the least objective person imaginable to comment on this film, having lived through or knowing friends who have directly experienced perhaps half of the events in this film. I do not resemble Viola Davis, who plays Nona Alberts, the teacher who, along with Jamie Fitzpatrick, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, circulates petitions getting a majority of parents and teachers to take over the management of Adams Elementary School in Pittsburgh; in particular, I do not have children who are struggling students (mine have all been honor students), and sending kids to school in Irvine is altogether different from sending them to school in the Pittsburgh neighborhood depicted in the film, or in Watts, where I taught for seven years at Locke High School; but I have had experiences resembling those depicted in Won't Back Down, especially those of the retaliation Nona receives from management for her efforts on behalf of students and of her experience of damaged relationships with fellow faculty members during the uncomfortable interim periods of controversy prior to and despondency after the local school board's governance decision respecting the future of the school.
Instead, my motivation in dreaming up the idea of taking over, with my fellow teachers, the management of Locke High School was motivated by the distinct differences between, and the unequal opportunities in, the two neighborhoods I was living in in 2007. Irvine, where I would wake up and go to bed and spend my weekends and summers, has a park-like quality, peaceful and quiet, where I could watch my son play in the sandbox outside my bedroom window and swim in the (gated) pool just behind the sandbox or learn to read in the National Blue Ribbon-winning (fenceless) elementary school just behind the swimming pool; while Watts, which I would drive to in the morning and leave in the afternoon, has been accurately labelled by President Clinton, who had visited prison-fenced Locke hunkered down in Watts, as "a depressed urban community", a disgraceful eyesore long forgotten by Los Angeles's leadership, abandoned to the rule of the Crips and the Bloods and the Souflos.
In June 2007, after the Los Angeles Unified School District had fired our principal and thrown out our teachers' petitions for converting Locke into a charter school in partnership with Green Dot Public Schools, and after most of our campus's teachers had been intimidated and cowed into a worried silence, heads down, with fears for our future; after our cause had been largely written off, I didn't back down; I wrote an editorial, published in the Los Angeles Times on June 7, 2007, calling for the newly elected school board to give our petition a vote, just what Jamie calls for in Won't Back Down's climactic scene. The board agreed, to its credit, and the results of the subsequent takeover have been much documented elsewhere, although there is still more to tell about that story, with particular lessons for teacher-management relations, if anyone still cares. But the unique Locke effort, which likely will not be repeated because of the way the teachers were neglected after the LAUSD board's final vote on September 11, 2007, did lead, I believe, to the conception of the Parent Trigger; for California's charter school law allows for either half of the tenured faculty or half of a school's parents to circulate a petition to convert their school into a charter school (the fictitious"Fail-safe" law of Won't Back Down requires both); and with Green Dot leaders having exhausted the easier option of winning the support of half a school's teachers, they next began exploring the more exhausting option of winning the support of half a school's parents. And thus today's controversies regarding the proper role of parents with respect to their children's schools find their birth in a forlorn corner of Watts, where parent participation at school was once probably as oppressed as anywhere in America.
For me, watching this movie (I've seen it twice now) was like being jabbed with pins for two hours, or more likely an hour and a half, since the first half hour, while important to set up the subsequent school takeover effort, has little personal relevance to my life. But although Daniel Barnz, the film's director and one of its screenwriters, told me he had never heard of Locke High School, either the other writer has, or one or both of them imagined with great accuracy what it's like to be in the midst of a school takeover battle, particularly for teachers who would prefer to be simply teaching their students to the best of their abilities on a daily basis instead of being besieged by politics and controversy. The first time I saw it, my heart raced and pounded so hard that it lost its rhythm; and I worried that I might not survive last night's screening, sitting with my wife and son, whose welfare I have so badly damaged by getting involved with improving the outcomes for thousands of children whom they have never met and who might seem as foreign to them as the citizens of another country.
But now I am focused on improving outcomes for them, and especially the outcome for him, since I do not want him to follow in his brother's fortunes, his brother who became a National Merit finalist only to be possibly California's only National Merit finalist to be turned down by my two alma maters, U.C. Berkeley and UCLA, who preferred students who had avoided taking the rigorous AP English class I was offering at Locke but who were also of a more preferred ethnicity. I have contacted four separate school districts in California, trying to get some version of One World Secondary School accepted as a charter school, and have been frustrated by many of the dirty tactics portrayed in the film; but I still won't back down, and will open the school as an independent school if our current educational leadership can't see past the unsuccessful, narrow visions and stale debates that continue to leave millions of American students behind -- unless Ryan, my son, runs out of time, a fear the parents in the film have for their children, while I try to open our school and put our lives back together.
I think Won't Back Down very well acted, particularly by the three actresses (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Holly Hunter) who have been previously nominated for Academy Awards. I think this Walden Media production does a better job than its predecessor, Waiting for Superman, in making the case for traditional school union backers, although I think none of the characters making the case for the traditional position comes alive with the same zest and conviction as the fictional school's reformers. I have noticed that the filmmakers have been taken aback by the controversy surrounding the school's politics: I think they primarily want to start a conversation around these important public issues, and may have been unprepared for the virulent stridency with which these matters are already being debated. But if this film gets people into theaters and then gets them talking with their neighbors about how we can improve education in this country for all our children, not just those trapped in obvious ghetto hell holes but also those boxed in by the invisible walls of a too narrow, out-of-date educational culture in for-now still comfortable suburbs, it will have succeeded in a mission less glamorous but more lasting than the glitzy world of Hollywood.