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Documentaries: Could Principal Minor Have Done More?

image from wamu.orgBelow are some interesting things I learned chatting Monday afternoon with Jacquie Jones, ED of the National Black Programming Consortium, about last week's "180 Days."  

NBPC is the outfit behind the documentary, which was also funded in part by the Ford Foundation, and according to Jones was conceived of as a way to deepen the school reform conversation but not necessarily as a response or rebuttal.

Jones puts the core question the film raises this way:  "How could this person [Principal Minor, pictured] who se so clearly smart in a real pratical way as well as passionate about these kids -- working at full capacity every day -- how could she be doing all this and it still sucked like this?"

I came away from the conversation much enlighted about some of the issues that had intrigued me -- especially the question of what if anything could have been done differently -- and informed about the thinking behind the scenes that were (and weren't) shown. 


The show was conceived and proposed three years ago as a more nuanced, intimate view of schools than was being provided via The Lottery, Waiting for Superman, etc.  "The teachers we were seeing [in DCPS schools] were working really hard to try and support the students; what we were hearing in the media was the opposite... It wasn’t so much these people are wrong and these people are right, but rather more that the conversation is more complex than that."

They had no idea at the time that NPR's Haper High School and OWN's Blackboard Wars, would all come out at about the same time these past few weeks. In fact, NBPC originally proposed a reality series along the lines of the Oprah Winfrey Network's "Blackboard Wars," but the CPB and PBS weren't ready for that much of a commitment in terms of airtime.    

There were a half dozen schools that were considered for the show, but Pricnipal Tanishia Williams-Minor was such a compelling character they had to go with the school she was at.  

Part of what they were after was to make clear how large the challenges are.  "There isn’t one thing that’s going to make everything OK.  If you're in the 10th grade and can’t read, there's not going to be an easy, elegant solution to that problem."


She was responsible for the scores and truancy rates that are mentioned here and there.  She tried her hardest.  "The math score dropping by 50 percent, that happened on her watch, the 50 percent were truant, that also happened on her watch."  

There wasn't anything obvious or decisive that Minor did wrong.  "There’s not like this one moment... I think it’s a series of small steps..." But there were some ways in which she was disorganized and distracted.  She started out trying to advise the cheerleading squad, and had to pass that along.  She insisted on a daily staff meeting, which many of the staff hated (though they'd followed her from another school).

The Alternative Schools chief hadn't assigned Minor to the school, didn't agree with her relationships-first approach to education, and wasn't interested in being on camera.  The only reason they could use the audio is because Minor's microphone was still on and DC has "one party consent."


In terms of pre- and post-broadcast publicity, the national mainstream media response to the documentary was lukewarm, apparently because there was no celebrity attached and the story was considered overly familiar.   Minor and Jones have done a fair amount of local, ethnic, and community media.  [The Root DC LivePublic Radio New OrleansWAMU American University Radio, Amsterdam News.

The online social media response -- most of it from educators rather than parents or others -- has been strong and overwhelmingly positive -- even more so than they expected.  "I thought there would be a little more that we were letting the school off the hook."  There was also some concern that the community would object to being depicted in a negative light, as has happened in New Orleans around Blackboard Wars.


The negative reaction from DCPS (in the form of a written statement) wasn't unexpected, and might have come from the Alternative Schools chief rather than the Chancellor's Office. "I was totally expecting that; I was expecting something worse than that."

DCPS could have tried to prevent them from picking DC Met, and could have waited until after the camera crews had departed before letting Minor know that she wasn't being renewed.  "I have to give DCPS a lot of respect. They could have fired her when it was done." 

DCPS head Kaya Henderson declined the chance to prescreen the show and give notes to the producers, and never visited the school during the shooting period.


Minor's efforts didn't pay off in any dramatic way in terms of reading and math test scores.  "One of the numbers went up, other went down, but they still suck." The final numbers have yet to be released, in part because DCPS got an NCLB waiver and schools no longer have to demonstrate AYP in the same way as in the past.


The information about the school's test scores wasn't included because they came out after the end of the 180 days they were trying to keep to.  However, this wasn't a rule that they held to in all circumstances.  They did include some events from before the 180 days began -- including most notably the image of Michelle Rhee on the cover of TIME with a broom in her hand -- and they did tell us what happened to Minor.  

Previous posts: "180 Days, Part 1""180 Days, Part 2"Thompson: The Tragic Endings of "180 Days" (Plus DCPS Response)Thompson: The Essence of Inner-City Teaching and Learning











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