TOWN HALL: ‘Won’t back down’ may help kids

September 28, 2012
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Once in a while, a movie makes a difference by inspiring individuals to achieve at a higher level. Need to get in shape? Then watch the original “Rocky.” When Sylvester Stallone runs up the stairs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it seems no goal is too high. Goliath, step aside.

A movie that releases in theaters today may motivate parents in much the same way. “Won’t Back Down” stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, and in another section of The Gazette film critic Roger Ebert says the women put on “an acting clinic.”

The movie, based on a true story, features Gyllenhaal as a poor single mom. She works two jobs and cannot afford private tuition for her daughter, Jamie, and cannot afford to move. The girl’s school is a typical urban failure, staffed with burned-out teachers who belong to a union that’s more interested in generating fees than with educating children. A union official utters an infamous quote that has been attributed to former American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker: “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, I’ll start representing schoolchildren.”

When Gyllenhaal can’t get her child’s teacher to help the girl with a homework problem, and finds that most teachers in the school lack enthusiasm for their work, she turns to the teacher played by Davis — a woman who appears dedicated to the interests of her pupils. Gyllenhaal wants her daughter transferred to Davis’ class.

When Gyllenhaal’s character hears about the state’s parent trigger law, which carves out limited opportunity for parents to overrule administrators in underperforming schools, she sets about overhauling the school and elicits reluctant support from Davis.

Gyllenhaal and Davis quickly find they are challenging a large and entrenched bureaucracy that won’t budge. They fight teachers, union bosses, the school board and tired, broke parents who lack time and money for a fight.

“ ‘Won’t Back Down’ is a dramatic story of what can happen when parents and teachers stop blaming and start collaborating,” states a report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education titled “Parents & Teachers Together.”

The film has generated enthusiasm from the Colorado-based Daniels Fund, which donates millions toward improving education for underprivileged children.

“The key message of ‘Won’t Back Down’ is that, when adults block the path to better schools — the reform we desperately need — they’re telling parents and kids to sit tight and hope for the best. Our families deserve better than that,” said Peter Droege, vice president of communications for the Daniels Fund.

Most teachers are upstanding professionals who want to make the world a better place. Too many work in institutions that are subject to corruption and degenerative forces of mediocrity. Our country’s prosperity depends on quality education for children. Only parents can guarantee a positive outcome, which is a message “Won’t Back Down” makes perfectly clear.

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