Posted: 09/15/2009


The Principal Story


by Matt Fagerholm

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Here’s a film every educator in America would benefit from seeing. “The Principal Story” debuts tonight at 9:30 CST on PBS, and it is the latest worthy installment of the network’s long-running POV series. Unlike the sensationalized scripted drama that often passes for “reality” on TV, the POV series has consistently showcased work from masterful documentarians who take an observant “fly-on-the-wall” approach to their subjects. This film is no exception, and is sure to resonate as one of the timeliest and most insightful portraits of the current crises in American schools, particularly those in low-income communities.

The film follows two Illinois principals, Tresa Dunbar of Chicago’s Henry H. Nash Elementary and Kerry Purcell of Springfield’s Harvard Park Elementary, who are both determined to turn around their low-performing schools. It is difficult to imagine either woman having a family of her own, since they have both devoted the entirety of their lives to care for each one of their students. Filmmakers Tod Lending and David Mrazek painstakingly capture the day-to-day struggle of educating a student body that mainly consists of children from low-income families. The social and emotional problems of the students are so high (and the school so under-funded) that the duties of a principal must transcend the realm of education in order for their children to succeed.

It is truly remarkable how much emotion and insight is contained within the film’s brisk hour-long running-time, without ever making the film seem rushed. Lending and Mrazek find the inherent drama reverberating beneath everyday occurrences, and the film is chock-full of memorable and heartrending moments, captured under the naturalistic lens of cinema verite. Perhaps the most poignant line in the film comes from a Nash student who brought a knife to school out of fear of being attacked by other students. As he eloquently speaks with the assistant principal, who is fulfilling the duties usually associated with a social worker, he observes that in the environment of his school, “you can’t have feelings.” That simple line succinctly illustrates the struggle of any student to learn in a threatening environment in which their social and emotional needs are not being met. This film confirms the unceasing truth that individuated (rather than group) learning truly assures that no child will be left behind. That’s why “The Principal Story” is a class-act.

If you missed the film on PBS, it will be available to watch for free on for 90 days.

Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.

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