The Pasadena Way
Jim and Dawn O’Keeffe’s ‘Go Public’ takes an unflinching look at a day in the life of local schools
After seeing the critically acclaimed 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman,” examining the failures of public education through the eyes of four children struggling to get into charter schools, former news producer and Pasadena Education Network member Dawn O’Keeffe was appalled.
In response to the film, Dawn and her husband, Jim, a cinematography professor at USC, decided to make their own film about public education. After some grassroots fundraising, they hired 50 small camera crews to follow students, teachers, principals, employees and volunteers in the Pasadena Unified School District. The crews — 10 student-run outfits and 40 professional operations — followed one person at a time from the moment they sat down for breakfast to when they returned home.
The documentary, “Go Public: A Day in the Life of an American School District,” co-produced by the couple, screens at 7 p.m. on June 13 at the Armory Center for the Arts as part of the Conscientious Projector film series.
“Many people have opinions about public education based on facts, perception and fear,” Dawn O’Keeffe told the Pasadena Weekly. “But how often do we see and hear from those who are experiencing it?”
The O’Keeffes, who put three children through local public schools, with a fourth currently a junior at Blair Baccalaureate School, spent about a year collecting names of kids and adults willing to be part of the three-year project.
“We wanted teachers at every grade level, administrators, principals, the superintendent, school board members,” she said. “We also wanted to capture special needs — wheelchair-bound students, students with autism — and what programs for those students look like.”
The finished film is a powerful look at public education in a cinema verite, or observational cinema style with no narration, which contradicts the conventional notion that public education is irrevocably broken. This is done by showing the teamwork and dedication necessary to educate students in a racially diverse or urban school district, much like Pasadena.
“Every director filmed differently,” O’Keeffe said of the crews involved. “We wanted an authentic experience. … It was up to the individual in the field. We were very committed to capturing the day. We didn’t want to disturb the moment. It was a fly-on-the-wall production.”
Too many cuts
In some clips, district employees, such as Longfellow Library Coordinator Eileen Roth, a 40-year PUSD employee who has been worried about her job in the three years since the district began laying off instructional aides, custodians and librarians, lament devastating budget cuts mandated by the state.
“I feel like an elementary school library is vital [to education],” said Roth, who was filmed from 6 a.m. until she returned home at 6 p.m. “Budget cuts are a problem, an ongoing problem. Three years ago I got about five layoff notices. I have been working since I was 14 and I had never gotten a layoff notice. It was very traumatic. I understand the difficulties with our schools, but I also understand it’s our future generation.”
Since 2007, the district has been forced to make almost $50 million in budget cuts, firing dozens of teachers, security guards and librarians. Earlier this year, 48 people — including librarians — were served pink slips.
In another clip from the film, parents and support staff members implore Superintendent Jon Gundry and the Board of Education to make cuts at district headquarters instead of firing teachers and teacher aides. During the session, Gundry sits quietly, at times smiling politely, as angry parents fire verbal arrows in his direction.
“Public employees have to take a lot from the public, they are required to and you have to take it with a smile,” Gundry says during his interview. “[Members of the public] frequently say things that are simply not true. We’re not allowed to respond. By law, we don’t respond. Responding to them and telling them they are wrong is considered limiting their First Amendment right to free speech. I’ve developed a very thick skin over the years. It’s hard to rile me up.”
The clip concludes with Gundry leaving for home at 11 p.m. just six hours before he is due back at district headquarters for another day on the job.
Other clips show that there are still optimistic people involved in public education.
“I really wanted this job because I feel like I connect here,” said Cleveland Elementary School Principal Shannon Malone, who left a position teaching high school to accept the leadership role at Cleveland.
Abigail Griffith, a second-grader at San Rafael Elementary School who, along with her twin brother, Ben, has been enrolled in a language immersion program since kindergarten, is now learning how to write in Spanish and English, much to the delight of her mother.
“It felt like a huge leap of faith to enroll my twins in the first kindergarten class of this program. We couldn’t tour the program; there was nothing to show us,” recalled her mother, Terri Griffith. “I thought to myself, ‘If it is a total disaster, we’ll figure out kindergarten again. We’ll redo it, or I’ll catch them up over the summer.’ Then, halfway through kindergarten, we saw my children starting to put Spanish sentences together. Now they’re in second grade, speaking fluently, and can hold their own in any Spanish conversation.”
In the opening to “Waiting for Superman,” acclaimed Harlem educator Geoffrey Canada recounts the moment that changed his life.
“One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist,” Canada said at the opening of the film. “She thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.”
The film paints public education as a devastating influence on communities, due largely to low test scores and high dropout rates, all the while it props up charter schools as the path to success for inner-city students. As the credits roll, the final words “public education is broken” flash across the screen.
The film was critically acclaimed, but it enraged public education advocates across the country.
“‘Waiting for Superman’ was not a fair depiction,” O’Keeffe said. “I wanted to tell the other side and just go capture what it is like.”
After committing to the project, O’Keeffe began asking parents and community members to help, and people immediately supported her. After that, the couple began applying for grants and raising money for the projected $150,000 budget. Just more than $25,131 was raised on the project-funding Web site Kickstarter.com with the help of 166 donors.
On May 6, more than 600 people gathered at Paseo Colorado’s ArcLight Cinemas to view the premiere of the documentary. Both USC and Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara donated camera equipment for the 10 student film crews. The schools’ professors, film students and recent graduates acted as mentors for the student production teams.
The couple is now seeking national or theatrical distribution for the film through their production company, Blue Field Productions, with the hope that it will lead to more understanding about public schools and a more caring attitude toward students from urban school districts,
“I’m glad they made the film,” said Pasadena Board of Education President Renatta Cooper, who is not in the film. “I think it’s a good thing. They have been working on this for a couple of years. I am hoping it makes it to the Academy Awards. Charter schools get so much PR like ‘Waiting for Superman,’ which was so biased against public education. I hope something like this that takes a slice of life view of one day in public education can go all the way.”
“We are a family that has traveled the public school journey and wanted the community to see inside the school by capturing a day in the life of people in our district,” O’Keeffe said. “I wanted the community to be more informed about public education, which has recently been under attack nationally.”