The traditional public school system is broken.
In the U.S., where 58% of African American 4th graders are functionally illiterate, there is an incredible achievement gap between African American/Latino students and whites. One answer may lie in Karl Alexander’s well-known “summer learning loss” research of students in the Baltimore public schools. Alexander discovered that low-income students actually gained more during school than their well-off peers, but fell back over the summer while the rich kids moved ahead. Malcolm Gladwell cited Alexander’s research in his bestselling tome “Outliers,” using the KIPP Academy in the Bronx as an example.
Like KIPP, Harlem Success Academy, run by Eva Moskowitz, is a charter school. Their technique flips the conventional educational model on its head: instead of a variable amount of achievement in a constant amount of time, the school makes time a variable (by extending both the school day and the school year) in order to make achievement the constant. The results speak for themselves. In 2009, 95% of third-graders at Harlem Success passed the state’s English Language Arts exam while only 51% of third graders in P.S. 149, the traditional public school that shares the same building, did. That same year, Harlem Success was No. 1 in math out of 3,500 public schools in New York State.
Unfortunately, since space at charter schools like Harlem Success Academy is limited, a lottery occurs every year to randomly select the incoming class. In 2009, 475 out of 5,000 applicants would win admission to the Harlem Success Academy charter schools and a chance at a better future. Making matters worse, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) regularly hold passionate protests against charter schools like the Harlem Success Academy because they feel these schools are gentrifying their neighborhoods.
Madeleine Sackler’s important documentary THE LOTTERY follows four families with young children entered in the 2009 lottery. Three live in one-parent homes; one has a father serving life in prison; another has a mother living in Africa; and one child’s mother is deaf. Despite their circumstances, all four kids seem bright and full of potential. Will they win the chance at a better future?
MMM sat down with filmmaker Madeleine Sackler to talk about her heartbreaking and vital documentary “The Lottery,” and how the charter school system is improving education in New York City and beyond.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: Your first film, “Mechina: A Preparation,” profiled Israeli soldiers and you edited the Rolling Stones rockumentary “Shine A Light.” How did you come about making “The Lottery?”
MADELEINE SACKLER: I had been working as a freelance editor and was just waiting for the right project. I saw footage of the lottery that we ended up filming in 2008 and had read some statistic on the achievement gap that I found very appalling. I thought it was really interesting that there were thousands of parents that night crossing their fingers hoping to win a chance at something that every kid deserves. I thought it was a very interesting visual metaphor for the problem that a lot of people don’t understand: there actually is enormous demand for better schools. The problem is not what everyone tells me when I ask them what the problem is – that it’s poverty or culture or the parents don’t care. So it seemed like a good opportunity to expose some myths and tell a good story at the same time.
MMM: Did you get the idea from Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” which used the Bronx charter school KIPP as an example?
SACKLER: [Laughs] No, that came out after.
MMM: What was your biggest hurdle in making “The Lottery?”
SACKLER: The biggest challenge, which I never overcame, was getting the participation of the Teacher’s Union. I knew from day one that they were an important part of the story and the education system as a whole, and I tried very hard to get their perspective included in the film, but they declined, which was very unfortunate.
MMM: Eva Moskowitz really comes away as the “hero” of the film.
SACKLER: I think her work is heroic; the fact that she has 95% of her kids at grade level in a neighborhood, Harlem, where the average is 56% overall. I think what she’s doing is really incredible. I was excited about charter schools before entering the project. Out of New Haven, 17% of kids were at grade level, and one of the first charter schools that was ever opened is there, Amistad Academy, and they had 71% of their kids at grade level. That school had been opened for a decade and it still was considered an anomaly. We’ve had this figured out for many, many years, and we haven’t found a way to make it systemic.
MMM: So you had a high opinion of charter schools from the get-go?
SACKLER: I knew that there were some charter schools that were incredibly high performing and if there are some schools that are doing so well and so many parents that want their children to be in them, why aren’t there more of them?
MMM: How long did this project take from conception to release?
SACKLER: Well I saw that [lottery] footage in April 2008 and I started working on it full-time in January 2009. It took 15 months.
MMM: How did you get TV on the Radio members Tunde Adebimpe and Gerard Smith to contribute the music to your film?
SACKLER: I was very excited. TV on the Radio is one of my favorite bands, so I was definitely a little starstruck. Tunde has such a beautiful voice and they both have such a beautiful musical sensibility. It was their first score and my first movie, so we spent a lot of hours figuring out what we’re supposed to be doing. I think it really is quite beautiful.
MMM: One of the issues raised in the film is race. You get the feeling after viewing the film that if Eva Moskowitz was African-American, people in the Harlem community would be far less critical of her work.
SACKLER: Maybe. I think it’s framed that way. But the parent who spoke on the panel, Carl, feels that it’s really the framing of an issue but not necessarily the heart of the problem. It’s not really addressed in the film but Eva served as the Chair of the Education Committee for several years and ran a lot of hearings on the problems with union contracts. That was very controversial among the teacher’s union and, according to Eva, they told her, “You have to stop holding these hearings.” The union said, “This is going to be the end of your political career,” and when she ran for borough president, they ran somebody against her and spent a lot of money on that campaign. So, when she lost, she decided she was going to go prove it could be done better and opened her own schools. I think some of the residual animosity is from that. Her schools are protested more than any other schools in the city and they’re some of the best. It’s very illogical and there are other white charter leaders, so it must be this antiquated political battle.
MMM: How did you choose the four families you profiled in the film?
SACKLER: I attended a lot of information sessions like the one in the movie. They have dozens of open houses where parents come, learn about the school and decide if they want to enter the lottery. So I just attended those and met a lot of really great parents.
MMM: Was it difficult to film the children?
SACKLER: It’s funny we were doing a photo shoot this morning and it is totally. It’s like a game. You’re constantly playing a game – “don’t look at the camera and you’ll get a treat!” Wolfgang [Held] who’s the DP, is an expert child photographer. He shot “Children Underground” and some of “Mad Hot Ballroom.” But really what it comes down to is just time. It takes a little longer with kids but when you’re around cameras for awhile, you start to forget that it’s there.
MMM: One of the most difficult things for you to negotiate – and the school system itself – is the personal versus the political. How did you negotiate that?
SACKLER: When I first started shooting the movie I was only interested in making a vérité film about four families. I was really excited by the artistic challenge of creating a portrait of four people going through this experience, from four different directions, and they all meet at this lottery. And we stumbled on the political side of things, which wasn’t at all the intention when making the film. I went through a mourning process when I knew it was going to have to take this different shape and we had to have this juggling act between the personal character portraits and the political struggle that the school system is facing all over the country. But, I felt it was a very important change because it answers the question I had going into the project: if there are these great schools and so many people want them then why aren’t there more of them? The answer is there are so many political obstacles all over the country to change.
MMM: What’s your opinion of Joel Klein and his relationship with Eva Moskowitz? Eva is pretty much the heroine of your film and from what I’ve read, it seems as though they have an odd, somewhat combative relationship with one another.
SACKLER: My understanding is they’re actually very admirable of each other. I think they’re both trying to reform the system in the same direction they just both face different obstacles. I think [Klein] is doing amazing things for kids against very difficult odds. What just happened last week with lifting the charter cap wasn’t able to happen in January, but the president’s persistence with providing incentives through Race to the Top, combined with people like Joel Klein, have meant that things that were impossible not even a few months ago are starting to happen now. It’s a very interesting and historic time. We’re at a crossroads now. There are more schools for kids than there ever were before for parents to choose from. We no longer have to send the kids to the red schoolhouse in the neighborhood no matter how terrible it is – at least in places where parents are fortunate, but we’re still not even close to being there yet. The fact that there are almost 200,000 kids on waitlists for charter schools shows there’s still a lot more room for growing.
THE LOTTERY opens on June 11th in New York City at Big Cinemas Manhattan 1