This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Davis Guggenheim’s "Waiting for ‘Superman‘" documentary has quickly become the media narrative about what’s wrong with public education and how to fix it. It boils down to the argument that bad teachers and their unions are the culprits and charter schools are the solution.
The documentary “A Community Concern” tells a different story and points us in a different direction when it comes to solutions.
Made over several years, the film charts the efforts of community organizations in Oakland, the Bronx, and Boston to improve their public schools. The story is told by the participants who talk about the victories, the challenges, and the way they have changed in the process.
"Waiting for ‘Superman’" and "A Community Concern" share some common ground. Both films talk about the need for high expectations, the belief that children from low-income communities of color can perform at high levels, and the historic failure of urban school systems to meet the needs of these communities.
But while "Superman" is focused on expanding choice so that more parents and students can escape failing schools, "A Community Concern" is about how public education can be transformed so that it meets the needs of the whole community.
There are no scapegoats or simple solutions in this film. In each of the organizing projects the challenge is to build partnership between educators, parents, students, and the broader community. All participants are asked to expand their understanding of what makes schools work and their own role in that process.
A math teacher in the Northwest Bronx , for example, says:
“As an educator, I always felt like it was through math that I would connect to students and that through math students would realize their own power. Through our organizing, however, I realized that students can realize their potential through anything that affects their lives directly. Organizing changed my priorities as a teacher. I realized I had to connect with the student first, then we could get to the academics. I realized we had to have a relationship. It couldn’t all be about the math.”
A parent of an autistic child in Boston describes how her involvement with the Boston Parent Organizing Network (BPON) changed her sense of her role.
“I think parents now understand it is more than just helping your kids do homework, it is more than just making sure your child goes to school everyday. It is being involved in the school, and understanding exactly what is going on in the school. It is so important because this involves your child’s future.”
The film chronicles organizing projects in three cities from their inception to the present.
- The Oakland story focuses on the Oakland Community Organization’s (OCO) campaign to end overcrowding in the schools in the “flatlands” where most of Oakland’s low-income families of color are concentrated, and create small schools that fostered community and school collaboration.
- In the Northwest Bronx the story is about a small high school that teaches students how to organize. The founders and their students have to employ their skills to get a suitable building for the school.
- In Boston the focus is on a citywide campaign to make schools more parent friendly by creating a Deputy Superintendent for Family and Community Engagement, and a Family and Community Engagement Coordinator (FCOC) position at the school level.
In all three cases the film makes the point that there are no easy victories. Frustration and setbacks are part of this story.
The film is made to provoke discussion and is segmented so that audiences can see the whole film or selected themes. A detailed viewer’s guide is available for download that includes questions for discussion as well as background essays by the organizers and educators featured in the film.