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Allison Brim
Allison Brim
Allison Brim is the Dallas County Organising Director for Texas Organising Project, a non-profit community organisation of 11,000 Texas families advocating and organising for better schools, affordable healthcare and stronger communities.
You are the real Maggie Gyllenhaal
Schools do not exist in a void and the support and input of parents and community is necessary to help improve them.
Last Modified: 04 Oct 2012 08:08
The movie, 'Won't Back Down', starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, is about a single mother with a child who has dyslexia and is receiving a sub-standard education from her neighbourhood elementary school [GALLO/GETTY]

With the release of Won't Back Down, a big budget film about a mom working to transform a failing public school, I know I haven’t been the only one thinking about education reform and how to fix our struggling urban schools.

The movie, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, is about a single mother with a child who has dyslexia and is receiving a sub-standard education from her neighbourhood elementary school. Gyllenhaal works with one of the teachers (Viola Davis) to take control of the school from the local school district.

Mom and teacher are successful in their efforts, and the film leaves viewers believing they have saved the students by winning this one initial victory of changing the management of the school.

Won't Back Down is a heartwarming movie, but it grossly misrepresents the true story that inspired it. And, it unabashedly oversimplifies school turnaround and parents’ role in real school change.

Parent Trigger law

The real story took place in 2010 in southern California, where a group called Parent Revolution convinced parents to sign a petition to take advantage of a newly enacted Parent Trigger law to "take back their school".

Parent Trigger is a new kind of legislation being pushed in states across the country; Texas passed a similar law last year. The idea is that if the majority of parents and teachers sign a petition in favour, control of a public school is shifted from the local school district to a private charter company.

That’s not exactly how some parents envision "taking back" a school. When parents found out that a for-profit corporation was going to be the new entity running their school, and that parents would have no official role once that shift happened, they felt used. Some went so far as to sue for the right to take their signatures back. However, the movie gets one thing right: parental involvement is crucial if we want to turn struggling schools around.

Real school turnaround normally takes years, and is not, as Won't Back Down suggests, a fait accompli the moment a new principal and leadership team are in place. Daniel Duke, a University of Virginia professor of Leadership, Policy and Economics, wrote an articlecalled "Keys to Sustaining Successful School Turnarounds", in which he makes a critical point about how we understand turnarounds: "If we wanted to track the success of a flight into space, we would not stop with liftoff." 

"The real story took place in 2010 in southern California, where a group called Parent Revolution convinced parents to sign a petition to take advantage of a newly enacted Parent Trigger law to 'take back their school'."

In the same paper, Duke examines 15 schools that have drastically improved and continued to see academic success for years. He finds that turning a school around always involves multiple factors, and overwhelmingly, increasing and maintaining parent and community involvement is a piece of the puzzle. 

Schools do not exist in a void, and therefore the support and input of parents and community is necessary to help improve schools. Won't Back Down tells an inspiring narrative of parents and teachers organising for change, but the movie stops at liftoff. We see nothing about the hard work it takes to actually implement the changes over a period of time. To be successful, parents have to continue to collaborate with schools throughout the implementation, evaluation and revisions of such changes.

Dallas ISD parents like Mayra Hurtado do in real life what Maggie Gyllenhaal does on screen. Mayra is a single mother of three and parent leader of Texas Organising Project, where she's fighting to ensure that her children get a better education than she did.

Changes in DISD schools

When Mayra saw schools failing to educate her own children, she got involved in a campaign to work toward safe schools and strong academics at all DISD campuses. Mayra is also caretaker for her mother, who at 67 years old is experiencing a life threatening medical condition.

Mayra is temporarily employed part time, cannot afford health insurance and struggles to pay the bills at home. Despite these challenges, Mayra volunteers several hours a week to help lead other DISD parents make improvements in our schools.

Mayra has joined with hundreds of other parents and community members to advocate for and win some important changes in DISD schools, such as the collaborative effort taking place now to turn H Grady Spruce High School in southeast Dallas around.

Spruce was almost shut down five years ago for poor academic performance, but because of the hard work of all parties over the past two years, Spruce is changing for the better. Now, 72.7 per cent of the school's ninth graders who entered in the first year of its reconstitution progressed to 12th grade on time. That's a better rate than all but two of DISD's non-magnet high schools.

What's more, parents and students say the culture of the school is changing, that now parents feel welcome in the school and students feel like the teachers want them in class. Parents now pack the school for parent meetings, whereas before attendance was sparse at best.

Of course, there is still a long road ahead for Spruce, located in an impoverished neighbourhood where drugs, violence and other challenges surround the school. Mayra and the other parents involved in this struggle know they're not done and they won't be resting any time soon.

So as you watch Won't Back Down, think about what it will really take to create high-performing schools in your community. Then go home and figure out a way to be a part of that change. Join with parents, students, teachers and community members who are already doing it in your community or find your own path. Just don't sit back and wait for Maggie Gyllenhaal to do it. Follow Mayra's lead and be part of making the change yourself.

Allison Brim is the Dallas County Organising Director for Texas Organising Project, a non-profit community organisation of 11,000 Texas families advocating and organising for better schools, affordable healthcare and stronger communities. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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