In 'Won't Back Down,' parents take charge of failing public schools

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One of the nation's biggest challenges in education is how to improve persistently low-achieving schools.

The movie "Won't Back Down" -- which was filmed in Pittsburgh and is being released today -- gives one answer: Let parents and teachers take over the school if it is failing to educate students.

The movie is placed in the fictional Adams School in the fictional Western Pennsylvania School District.

But it contains lots of real Pittsburgh scenes and black and gold, from Steelers and Penguins T-shirts to sports bobblehead dolls as well as a reference to Adams being in the Hill District.

Locations included three closed Pittsburgh Public Schools -- Letsche, Miller and Connelley, all in the Hill District -- as well as Pittsburgh Allderdice High School, Community Day School in Squirrel Hill and Shaler Area Elementary School.

The movie bills itself as "inspired by true events," but the event many link the movie to didn't take place in Pennsylvania but rather in California, under a "parent trigger" law.

Nor are all of the events "true," such as a blanket statement that union contracts forbid teachers from spending extra time helping students.

The parent trigger law was passed in California in 2010, enabling parents to demand certain changes at persistently low-achieving schools -- including converting them to a charter -- where 51 percent of parents sign a petition.

Since then, parent trigger laws have been passed in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana and have been proposed in a number of other states, including Pennsylvania.

The law is so new that only two schools in California have gone through the process, and the first to succeed is expected to open as a charter school next fall, according to Gabe Rose, deputy director of Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based group that was instrumental in the law's passage and helps to create parent unions.

The group's funders include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

In 2009, Green Dot charter schools provided seed money, but the Parent Revolution has not received any money from charter school companies for three years, Mr. Rose said.

Mr. Rose said the movie studio more than a year ago told the Parent Revolution that it had read accounts of the battles, had written a script and was making a movie.

The group made some suggestions, which were added to the movie.

"We added a little bit of color," he said.

But the final product, he said, made the parents' task look easier than it is.

"The reality is the real life story is even worse than the movie in terms of the lengths people will go to try to stop parents from organizing," he said.

The movie focuses on the drive to collect signatures from more than half of the parents and more than half of the teachers in order to take over the school.

That type of takeover is possible in Pennsylvania under the charter school law, which permits an existing school to be turned into a charter school if more than half of the teachers and parents sign a petition.

Only one school -- Lincoln Charter School, opened in 2000, in York County -- has done such a conversion.

While the charter school law requires both parents and teachers to sign petitions, a proposed parent trigger law was introduced in Pennsylvania last year that would give power to parents.

Certain school changes could be required if 51 percent of parents in a school or a combination of those parents plus parents of students in elementary or middle schools that normally feed into the school signed a petition.

"Even if [parents] didn't really want to take over the school, they would have the leverage to say, 'If you don't get it together, we will,' " said state Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, the bill's sponsor.

The proposal offers four strategies, including replacing the principal, replacing at least half of the staff and other changes.

The bill has been sitting in the Senate Education Committee, but Mr. Williams said he expects to reintroduce it in the new session next year.

He said parents already have power in affluent areas because families can move or pay tuition. "The only place where that doesn't happen is people who are of modest income," he said.

The impetus for the mother in the movie to act was that school officials didn't listen to her concerns about her daughter's education.

Ebony Pugh, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, noted the movie was a dramatization that included "a lot of the stereotypes that have plagued public education," but "anyone familiar with Pittsburgh Public Schools would know this is not a film about an actual event, law or anyone in Pittsburgh."

The film is presented by Walden Media, which also backed "Waiting for Superman," a documentary about families trying to flee low-performing public schools for charter schools.

The movie also has brought criticism, including a protest planned today outside Pittsburgh Colfax K-8 in Squirrel Hill by the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network and others.

"The biggest thing for me is they promote the negativity of teacher unions," said Irene Habermann of Park Place and education task force chair of the interfaith network.

"I think it takes every stakeholder. That includes the unions, the administrators, the parents and the students, and I think that brings about reform."

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Education writer Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955. First Published September 28, 2012 4:00 AM


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