They want to take action and be the “superman” they’ve been waiting for — now.
Inspired by the groundbreaking documentary that flagged the public school crisis, a packed town hall of 300 educators, students, politicians and parents in Honolulu was among a series of forums across the U.S. that was part of the social action campaign for the Waiting for “Superman” documentary. The forums were organized by Participant Media, the L.A.-based entertainment company behind the film.
“Our hope is that the community will be inspired to get more engaged and involved in helping public schools in whatever way they can,” says Cheri Nakamura, Hui for Excellence in Education (HE‘E) coalition director. “I believe that community participation and input is critical in school improvement. New Beginnings Town Hall was a means to reaching the community.”
For years, the community talked about making the educational system better. Kiana Rivera, medical case coordinator at Waikiki Health Center, attended the town hall to see if the community would walk the talk.
“I think this meeting is that first domino in this maze of a system,” she says. “I believe that more of our community will realize that in order to make any change, we can’t just rely on our government. We must take action into our own hands, because, after all, education is a community collaboration. We are the system.”
Maya Soetoro-Ng’s Message
Maya Soetoro-Ng, Our Public School co-founder and board member and U.S. President Barack Obama’s younger sister, was a special speaker at the event. The event’s significance reminded her of an incident with her family two years ago. She tells the crowd the story of her daughter Suhaila, then four, who often loved washing dishes “because she was a big girl.”
One night, the mother of two heard a “large crash, a bang and a boom” and found a sick Suhaila curled up into a ball on the living room couch watching TV instead of washing dishes. All over their living room and kitchen were shards of porcelain and glass — after the cabinets in their kitchen had fallen over completely. Among the debris were her late mother’s wedding china and teapots that had been collected by her husband’s family. Though so much of value was destroyed, what remained was Suhaila’s Eeyore cup.
“I felt flooded with sadness for like five seconds and then I realized, you know what? She was sick and on the couch which means she was not under the cabinets when they fell, which means she was alive and well, relatively speaking, and had just some nastiness in the nose,” she told the crowd at Kapiolani Community College. “And it took us like five hours to right the kitchen but I never mourned what was lost.”
As she had never used the precious china and teapots for fear of ruining them, she recognized she didn’t really need them.
“So what I would like us to think about, is that somehow with all of those shards, the old shapes have been lost, but we can rediscover some new shapes, we can put the pieces together in new ways, we can be inventive, and what we have to do and what we have to do tonight is take that first step,” she says. ” We have so many wonderful partners, so many opportunities to take next steps.
“Regardless of whether we have children in the public schools, these are our schools, and we need to begin taking those next steps,” she continues. “And then we need to stay committed to the process of working together. So let’s make sure that what we’re building is a sense of optimism, possibility, that we can make a difference, a sense of consistent and persistent responsibility that moves well beyond this night and into the future.”
She encourages others to think about public schools differently.
“These are our schools. And we need to shift the paradigm,” she says. “And we need everyone to see how they can contribute, make a difference, offer resources, offer support for the teachers, offer your stories, offer your past, your hands and let’s do some stuff, let’s take some action.”
(Click here for Our Kids Media’s exclusive Q&A and audio interview with Maya Soetoro-Ng.)
Film Inspires Action
HE’E, part of a coalition of organizations at the event, presented a petition in support of a Board of Education family and community engagement policy.
“Our focus is to take action so we wanted everyone that came to get some information on what’s happening in the schools at different levels and then to hopefully get involved in some way,” says Kathy Bryant, communication coordinator for HE‘E, in an interview with Our Kids Media. “I think all of our hopes is that every person who left today committed to one action in a school or to support a school. That they walk away saying, ‘I can do something, I can get involved’ either at my local school or at the state level or in some way do something that makes a positive change at schools.”
Since the film Waiting for “Superman” was released in theatres last year, advocates say some progress has been made, including stirring debate and discussion in the media and town halls, and inspiring people to get motivated and engaged in their schools.
“I think in terms of raising awareness, it’s had a huge impact,” Bryant says. “And I think that it’s turned what could have been a real negative — because the movie does have some strong images and people could’ve just walked away and said, ‘Oh, those public schools are just a wreck and we can’t do anything about it.’ I think it’s had an opposite effect which is we’ve got to change, we’ve got to get involved, we’ve got to make a difference.”
The town hall’s message included building a great partnership between communities and families and schools, as well as respecting, appreciating and supporting teachers, and finding ways to help them. As for her advice to parents on helping schools improve, Bryant suggests finding “ways you can be a great teacher at home and also learn how to support your schools and your teachers, so they can continue to do a great job.”
With everyone’s busy schedules, a key challenge is finding time to commit to taking action, Bryant says. “So events like this which kind of create that ‘take a breath’ moment, where everyone can just take a moment to figure out how we can work better together, are really important because everyone is just so busy in the day-to-day business of raising their kids and teaching their kids and going to work that it’s hard to take a break and think about how to work together,” she says.
The Hidden Success Stories of Public Schools
The film Waiting for “Superman” was positive in encouraging dialogue, but it bashed teacher unions and didn’t shed more light on the little-known success stories of public schools, says Karen Ginoza, a retired public school teacher, past president of the teachers’ union, and FACE (Faith Action for Community Equity) education leader and co-chair of the education task force. “For so long, we didn’t feel we had support. . . . It’s the first time we’ve seen so many groups come out to support public education,” she says of the town hall, noting that Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie had even stayed the entire time. “Unions are not the problem but everyone needs to come together to solve the problem.”
For instance, she says the top four teams in the high-level science bowl competition in Hawaii were public schools, despite private schools in the island state outnumbering public ones.
As part of the solution, she encourages parents to join school communities and for educators to welcome them. “Too often, they only go to school when their kids are in trouble,” she says. “We really need parents to get involved in their schools.”
Addressing the Real Issues
It was a full house at the town hall, where a panel of educators and community activists discussed investing in early childhood education, and ways families and schools can support each other.
Even with the belief they can make a difference, James Koshiba of Kanu Hawaii says he was “deeply concerned” that they would not be prepared to meet the challenges.
“I’m concerned we’re going to be too little, too late,” he tells the crowd. “Too late for kindergartener, too late for the graduate competing for jobs. . . . We expect the worst of students and don’t expect enough of students. We need to change our expectation. We need to be honest to each other. We need to be organized as a system to change.”
Driving 1.5 hours from the town of Waianae to attend the town hall, Suzette Farnum believes the effort is worthwhile. Since she lives in a high-poverty community with a 64 per cent graduation rate, the school didn’t have a playground and kids were forced to play on an empty field. As a result, Farnum started a parent volunteer kindergarten recess on Fridays at her children’s school. Five parent volunteers on Fridays helped improve the quality of the children’s experience at school.
“I don’t think we spent enough time addressing the real issues (at the town hall),” says the mother of three, who attends board of education meetings and is heavily involved as an education advocate.
Whether it means driving out of town to attend town halls or organizing games at recess such as Duck, Duck, Goose, citizens like Farnum are hopeful about improving their schools, and willing to contribute their part to be their own community’s superheroes.
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What do you think about the groundbreaking documentary, Waiting for “Superman”? How did it inspire or motivate you? How can society help improve schools? Have your say in the Comments section below.