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GO PUBLIC Film Offers Inside View of Schools

March 4, 2014

GO PUBLIC offers an authentic fly-on-the-wall perspective of a public school district that every voter needs to see. This fresh and recent documentary film gives the viewer a frank, and sometimes painful, look inside the lives of the people in Pasadena Unified Schools – and it’s a long shot from the tree-lined lawns of the famous Craftsman neighborhoods we know from Rose Parade week. This is the nitty-gritty of public school life. The focus on quality, real quality, from everyone at school, is a heartening lesson for any viewers, voters, district decision-makers and educators. Could every school district, every classroom, every office, withstand this kind of exposure? Could our own ethics pass the documentary film test?

Watching GO PUBLIC takes you through the sisyphean day (May 8, 2012) of a public school professional. It begins sweetly enough, with glimpses of parents gently waking their kids, teens shuffling to the bathroom, a principal girding himself with black coffee while he talks about all the testing in the day ahead, and the challenges of managing “one more thing.” It’s gratifying to get to spend time with the “others” at a school: the tattooed mom in the parent center, the librarian, the janitor, and best of all, the campus security guy who chases down truants and “those kids” who seem to have out-of-the-classroom priorities. There is no narrator; you hear the stories from the people whose lives are shown. The film is a 90-minute documentary built from 50 short films that you can see on the GO PUBLIC website. The directors are brilliant at showing the essence of both educators’ and students’ lives.

There’s the expected stuff, but then we begin to notice all the hands-on learning going on, all the extra things that make school better than surfing the net, such as ceramics and yoga and music, brought to you through the dedication and grit of the adults and educators in PUSD. Just when we’re winding down for the happy ending, school kicks into its second shift. The hard-case security guy morphs into the choir and band sponsor, the principal swigs the same black coffee (cold now) while heading to the varsity baseball game and the literature teacher becomes acting coach, producer and director of the next school play. And then just as you’re really ready to call it a day, everyone goes to the school board meeting where union speaks to management and tries to preserve as much as possible in the face of budget cuts. (My favorite person in this segment is the only Latino school board member, whose short documentary on the GO PUBLIC website reveals an activist side. My hero.) Even after that, the baseball coach is still reviewing stats while his wife tries to get him to stop, just stop! being at school. At the end of the film, we discover that many of our favorite individuals will be gone due to budget cuts, and that should generate a feeling of loss if our moral compass is properly set. We are emotionally and physically exhausted. And that’s just one day. Probably not even a Friday.

Two things need to be said about GO PUBLIC, two lessons in it for the rest of us. First, could every facet of our work withstand this kind of exposure? If not, why not? What needs to change, and who would be the change agents? Second, we are looking at a public school district in the middle of affluence. Why are they struggling to keep the library open? Shouldn’t people with enough pocket money to fund the librarian’s position be doing it? The PUSD superintendent spoke to the audience after the January 2014 screening in Pasadena, along with the filmmakers, the foundation president, and two of the 50 featured people, teachers at local schools. This is a microcosm of the situation of public schools like mine, fighting to ensure equitable distribution of Prop 30 funds to high-needs schools. Jon Gundry, the PUSD Superintendent, was very frank about answering questions about the divisions in places like LAUSD – I won’t share his heartfelt comments except to say that Gundry totally gets it. He gets the need for his district to cooperate with the Pasadena teachers’ union in order to wring out the best possible education and support for his school community.

The educators also get it, which addresses the first lesson of GO PUBLIC – every classroom, every office in the district, should offer effective, if not exemplary, models of professionalism. But it takes money, which is the second lesson. As long as we’re funding things other than site support, we’re selling our kids short. This goes for iPads, random reforms and cursory reorganizations or closures of public schools.

Go see GO PUBLIC, and take a voting citizen with you. The GO PUBLIC March screenings calendar is full of Southern California opportunities. The film eloquently makes the point that public education is critical, its quality, and it’s worth the little bit of interest, protection and action from everyone who wants to live in a democratic society.

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