'The Principal Story' by Tod Lending and David Mrazek
Take two schools with failing test scores and students who are below the poverty line, and add two passionate principals to the equation.
It might not equal complete success, but for Chicago's Nash Elementary School and Harvard Park Elementary School in Springfield, Ill., the principals' incredible dedication and persistence helped to turn their schools around.
Principals Tresa Dunbar and Kerry Purcell are the subjects of the new documentary The Principal Story. The documentary explores how the two principals, Purcell with six years of experience and Dunbar with only two years, go about inspiring their staffs, their students and themselves to improve conditions and test results in their schools.
"If you want to turn around troubled schools, schools that are challenged, school that have a majority of low-income students, you really need strong leadership," said Tod Lending, the film's executive producer and co-director, who followed Dunbar and Purcell for a full school year. Lending received a grant from the Wallace Foundation to document the challenges faced by school principals in America.
At the two schools, at least 95 percent of students are at or below the poverty line. At the beginning of the documentary, each of the principals was leading a school that faced tremendous disciplinary problems, including poor attendance and failing test scores.
But according to Purcell and Dunbar, some of the biggest challenges occur before students even walk through the school doors.
"Many children in this country come to school prepared. They have pencils, they have book bags, they have paper," explains Dunbar. "Many of the children who we serve do not."
Beyond working with teachers and administrators to best serve the educational needs of the students, the principals need to train their staff to also deal with the problems some children face outside the classrooms.
"A child who comes to school and who has no heat, no water, no electricity, no food — they are not ready to focus on the ABCs and the 1, 2, 3s every day," said Dunbar. "So we have to deal with that at the door."
During the course of filming, one student at Harvard Park, Truvonte Marquis, was struck and killed by an ambulance while riding his bicycle. The death immediately transformed Purcell from an educator into a grief counselor to her students and staff, literally providing her shoulder for others to cry on.
"It was all hands on deck to just wrap our hands around these kids, the family and one another to support ourselves through a time that no book can teach you how to deal with," Purcell said.
By the end of the school year, both schools made tremendous strides under the leadership of Purcell and Dunbar. Educators saw an increase in both test scores and morale.
"I would hope that superintendents ... would see this film and have a lot more compassion and understanding for what principals are going through on a day-to-day basis," Lending said.
The Principal Story airs Tuesday night on PBS.