The Principal Story
- Notes from the Filmmaker
The Principal Story, a $1.5 million dollar national multiplatform broadcast film and outreach project, was selected for full funding by The Wallace Foundation in response to its RFP to help elevate the visibility of leadership as a lever for school improvement. The Foundation was seeking a film that would provide compelling and credible stories of principals and their leadership teams whose work could result in schoolwide improvement and academic achievement for youth. With a focus on the vital and changing role of school leadership, the project’s objectives are to raise awareness; educate and motivate key audiences, including opinion leaders in policy and education; provide resources; and spur collaboration and action. Since 2002, improving education leadership at all levels of the system – state, district, and school – has been the sole focus of The Wallace Foundation’s efforts in education.
The Principal Story is a 60-minute documentary about public school leadership and learning seen through the eyes of two very dynamic and passionate principals, one in the Chicago Public School System, and one in Springfield, IL. Following these two principals and schools in depth for one year, the film reveals the complex social and political dynamics that connect children, parents, teachers, principals, principal supervisors, school system executive officers, and elected officials. The Principal Story takes the viewer along for a compelling, passion-filled ride that reveals what effective educational leadership looks like in the 21st century. Produced and directed by Tod Lending, Nomadic Pictures, and David Mrazek, the film is projected to air on PBS in fall 2009.
Studies have shown that student success in struggling schools relies heavily on the effective leadership of the principal. In The Principal Story, all three leaders oversee a majority of low-income student populations facing the testing challenges of the No Child Left Behind Act. Their schools offer distinctly different educational environments, with the unique challenges of different age/grade levels and class sizes. Each principal is at different phases in her career; their leadership styles reflect this.
The Wallace Foundation
On The Web
For the Learning Guide that illustrates key practices for developing principal leaders:
For important resource materials and short films on school leadership:
Notes from the Filmmaker
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 results 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.
My past few projects were developed, produced and directed solely by myself. But for this project, because of its size and complexity, it was clear to me that I needed a partner. The person I brought on to produce and direct the film with me was David Mrazek, a veteran PBS producer/director, whose work includes The Great War series, The Kingdom of David, The Duel, and Woodrow Wilson, among many others. With his sharp intellect and great sense of humor, I could not have chosen a better partner. David was excellent at understanding The Wallace Foundation’s perspective on education leadership, while I was more focused on the visual and emotional elements of the story. While making the film, we spent an inordinate amount of time together. The communication and trust we shared resulted not only in a good film, but also in an enjoyable filmmaking experience.
I selected Judy and Ken Ravitz and Anne Llewellyn of Outreach Extensions to develop and produce the outreach portion of the project. This is a team I’ve worked with on past projects and have had great success with their work. Their work ethic and commitment to using film as a tool to achieve social change are extraordinary. They are the first people I turn to for creating an outreach project that will utilize the film in ways I could never imagine. The campaign they’ve developed for The Principal Story provides innovative resources and strategies for public television stations and national partners to bring to key audiences the critical issue of school leadership, with a specific focus on the role of the principal as an instructional leader. Stations have a unique capacity to extend the impact of film in their local communities through dialogue, events, and productions. David and I look forward to being part of campaign discussion panels and screenings.
The Wallace project presented many challenges to a filmmaker. It was essential that we find the right principals for this story – who are articulate, who would provide unrestricted access to their daily activities, and who are great at what they do. We wanted to show as many aspects as possible of the principal’s job, including how they professionally develop teachers, discipline students, shape the climate and culture of the school, manage the building, interact with the central office, develop curriculum and work 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.
To create such a story, we felt that we needed a guide to help us traverse this complex terrain. We selected Joan Dameron Crisler, a dynamic, highly intelligent and articulate former principal. I had filmed Joan years before when she was principal of Chicago’s Dixon Elementary School, which she had turned around from a low-performing school to one of the best elementary schools in the city. At the time I approached Joan, she was training new principals and was very excited to act as the on-camera correspondent/ narrator. Her insights and understanding of the principal job and the public education system would be a great asset to the story, and her charismatic personality would give the audience a central character to identify with throughout the film. She would be the glue that would hold the disparate story elements together, as well as provide context and meaning to the scenes.
David and I researched many schools and pre-interviewed numerous principals before selecting our three principals: Dr. Tresa Dunbar of Henry H. Nash Elementary School in Chicago (Pre-K-8), Kerry Purcell of Harvard Park Elementary School in Springfield, IL. (K-5), and Dr. Sunny Ayala of North Grand High School in Chicago (9-12). Our initial plan had been to focus on three Chicago schools, based on Chicago’s long history of low-performing schools and its impressive present-day success in turning them around. We also wanted to shoot locally so that, if needed, we would be able to grab our camera and sound equipment and film at a moment’s notice without worrying about lost time or travel expenses. However, we were unable to find a school that was multiracial and had a mix of socioeconomic levels (yet was primarily low income) within Chicago. We found the school and principal we were looking for in our state capital, Springfield, which is about three-and-a-half hours away.
For Wallace, we had written a detailed proposal describing our film and outreach concept and included a 10-minute film demo that showed Joan in a few scenes at Nash Elementary School interacting with teachers, the two assistant principals, and the principal. After being awarded the grant, we celebrated with some wine and a nice Italian meal – and it was off to work. We had agreed to deliver the film within a year so there was no time to waste. While we had filmed the beginning of the school year at Nash (for the demo), we were missing the first couple of months with our other two schools, Harvard Park and North Grand. Our plan was to film the rest of the school year and to begin editing in April, as we continued filming.
We decided to shoot this story very strategically, rather than shoot in a traditional verité style. The latter requires the filmmaker to spend days, weeks or months hanging out with the subject, waiting for things to happen. We were very clear on the types of scenes and interviews we wanted to capture. We budgeted 35 days for filming, assuming we would need ten days in each school and then have an extra five days for pick-ups. Within the first month, David and I discovered that our principals were offering extraordinary access to their lives. They allowed us not only to film their work, but also their intimate thoughts and emotions. Trust quickly developed, something that is essential for making a good documentary film. As a result, we decided to spend more time with our principals, capturing all of the experiences of their days. Once we saw what was happening before the lens, it became clear to us that the story needed to be told as a verité film. We expanded our shooting schedule to 100 days.
This idea of following your storyteller instincts and going in a different direction from what you initially proposed comes from approaching the situation with an open mind to what is happening in the present. Mind you, a balance must be struck between what was proposed and what the new approach would be. We were confident that shooting in a verité style would not only capture the themes and issues we presented in our proposal, but would present them in a way that would be dramatic, truthful, and engaging for an audience.
To be honest, verité documentary filmmaking is my first love. My best films have been shot in that tradition, although it’s very dicey because you may get nothing or just a little something. But when you start capturing scenes you never imagined, and when the people you’re filming trust you and allow you access to their lives and personal thoughts, well, it’s like being in documentary heaven. You feel privileged to have the opportunity to capture life as it naturally unfolds. I always consider it a gift from the universe.
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 all the planning and organizing in the world, 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 so aware, until 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 the father is abusive? Or there never was a father to begin with? Or the grandmother who takes care of them 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; manage a budget and acquire and allocate resources to support children’s learning; report to administrators in the central office and deliver voluminous amounts of paperwork to them; and interact with parents, school engineers, and lunchroom workers.
But, something else that cannot be taught is essential to the job – something that has to be a part of the principal’s core being. As Arne Duncan, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, states in the film, “But, at the end of the day, we look at the principal’s heart.” 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. It was inspiring to film the three amazing principals that we followed. It gave me hope that, with more principals like them, we’ll have a better chance of improving our education system. With improved education, we’ll have a better chance of ending the cycle of poverty, community violence and domestic abuse.
Our remarkable editor is Jan Sutcliffe, who has worked with me on prior films. I absolutely trust and rely upon her creative eye and strong story sensibilities. Once in the editing room, we quickly learned a couple of things that would reshape the story we initially proposed. After seeing the footage assembled by Jan, I could tell that the high school story was not going to work as a third story to be interwoven with those of Tresa (Nash) and Kerry (Harvard Park). The story was good, but as a high school had a different set of issues from those of an elementary or middle school. In addition to not meshing well with the other stories, I felt it would be too difficult to tell a cogent story with so many characters and different storylines unfolding within one film. David and Jan agreed; so, early on, we decided to tell the story with two schools. We hoped to tell the high school story in a short film or vignette, and to make it a part of the outreach DVD.
The other story change that occurred in editing was eliminating Joan Crisler as the film’s narrator. While we felt that Joan had done a superb job of interviewing many of our subjects, we wondered if we could tell the story solely through the voices of our principals. We made the painful decision to edit the film without her in it. In the end, this proved to be the right choice. The principals are able to tell their own stories, through their own voices, and thus their characters are more engaging and more present in the film.
There is a downside to telling stories through the voices of the subjects without a third-person narrator. It becomes more difficult to add context to connect certain scenes to what is going on in the larger picture of education across the country – without disrupting the flow of the story. Our solution was to provide text-over images, which were interspersed within the film when context was needed.
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 was a six-year veteran (when we started) and Tresa was beginning her second year. When taking over a school that’s been on probation for 12 years, the learning curve is enormous. We realized that people watching the film might forget that Tresa was a new principal, and might, at times, unfairly compare her to Kerry. So we used our context cards to remind people that Tresa 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.
We couldn’t have had a better relationship with The Wallace Foundation, especially since this was their first foray into funding a documentary film. Jessica Schwartz, senior communications officer, was my main contact at Wallace. I was incredibly pleased and honored to be working with such a knowledgeable and capable person. She was the force at the foundation that had pushed for a film to be produced and was committed to its success. I was very impressed by her respect for the creative process. She gave us the freedom we needed to create the film we thought was best, and she was also available for support and information when we needed it. The same can be said of key foundation staff, Frederick Brown (our senior program officer), Lucas Held (director of communications) and Richard Laine (director of education). At the fine-cut stage, we invited all four of them to view the film and received helpful comments that assisted us in clarifying scenes and adding context.
Throughout the making of this film, David and I learned many things about public education. In addition to seeing the importance of the 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 our schools in low-income communities need to be more than schools; they need to provide emotional and social support for the 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.
As Abraham Lincoln 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 top priority of the nation. If that happens, then rest assured, our public schools will improve.
“a moving testament to the obsessive dedication it takes to keep a struggling school functioning,” (4 stars)
— Chicago Tribune
“…an emotional ride that reveals what effective educational leadership looks like in the 21st century.”
— Miami Herald
— This Week in Education
“…depicts the full range of social challenges faced by teachers and administrators in the country’s broken schools… It is at once heartbreaking and uplifting.”
— Chronicle of Philanthropy