Episode Information

P.O.V.: The Principal Story
Aired:
09/15/2009
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In this episode:

A dramatic portrait of the challenges facing America’s public schools

 


Tresa D. Dunbar, Ph.D., second year principal at Chicago's Henry H. Nash Elementary

POV The Principal Story

An intimate, vérité-style account of the year-in-the-life of two elementary school principals

Aired Tuesday, 9/15 at 9:00 p.m. on CPTV, followed by Principal Story Town Meeting, a CPTV Original Production, at 10:00 p.m.

The Principal Story captures a year in the life of two dynamic public school principals in Illinois. Veteran principal Kerry Purcell has led Harvard Park Elementary in the state capital of Springfield for six years; Tresa D. Dunbar, Ph.D., is in her second year as principal at Chicago's Henry H. Nash Elementary on the city's tough west side. They differ in temperament, age, race and experience. Yet they share a striking demographic challenge: Their students are overwhelmingly from low-income families. At Harvard Park, the number is 87%. At Nash, virtually every student — a shocking 98% of the student body — comes from a low-income family. With this fact come a host of familiar problems — lack of funding, teacher turnover, low attendance rates, low test scores and the corresponding lures of drugs, gangs and violence.

Fortunately, as The Principal Story makes clear, Purcell and Dunbar share a couple of other things, too. One is an irrepressible determination to see that poverty doesn't prevent their students from getting a good education. The other is an uncanny knack for delivering on that determination

The Principal Story offers two real-life suspense stories in one. In six years at Harvard Park (pre-K through fifth grade), Purcell has taken a school where student behavior was out of hand, test scores were "in the gutter" and staff morale was low, and dramatically increased attendance, test scores and order in the classrooms. The numbers alone show her success. Yet the numbers can be treacherous under policies that emphasize uniform test results, such as the No Child Left Behind Act. With success, "the standards keep going up," as Purcell ruefully notes. In her sixth year at Harvard Park, rather than resting on her laurels, she faces the daunting task of raising the students' proficiency rates in reading and math from 65% to 95%.

At Nash Elementary (pre-K through eighth grade), second-year principal Dunbar faces a particularly dire situation. The school has been on probation for 12 years and on the academic watch list for eight, and it had gone through six principals in five years before appointing the former assistant principal (who returned to the school after multi-year principal training) as principal. In her first year, Dunbar barely began rallying the teaching staff and reaching out to her students and their families. Now the challenge is stark — if she and her staff cannot significantly raise test scores this year, Nash Elementary will be closed. Learn more...

The documentary is followed by a rebroadcast of Principal Story Town Meeting, a CPTV Original Production, at 10:00 p.m. The one-hour, town hall meeting-style program, hosted by Steve Kotchko (CPTV's On the Record), explores what is expected of school principals to turn around low-performing schools in Connecticut. Learn more and watch the full program online...

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