Can Community Organizing Improve Schools?


Few would dispute that federal and state education policy generally lacks input from rank and file teachers and parents. That reality, to a large extent, motivated teachers earlier this year to stage mass school walkouts with the support of parents and community members.

Clearly, after years of disappointing results from top-down reform, there’s an urgent need to examine the positive progress that can happen when efforts come from the bottom-up. That is the subject of a new documentary The Long View.

The film takes you inside two public high schools in East Oakland, California, a community of mostly low-income families of color whose schools struggle with over-crowded conditions and strained funding and resources.

One school, Life Academy of Health and Bioscience, is successfully engaging students in challenging project-based learning, critical thinking, and a curriculum infused with community issues. Things weren’t always this way, of course, and much of the history of Life Academy’s progress is recounted through the words and memories of Emma Paulino, a parent and community organizer with Oakland Community Organizations. Realizing that her son’s “failures” in school were mostly a result of an inequitable system, she decided, along with her fellow community organizers, to do something about it.

At the other school in the film, Fremont High, community organizers’ efforts to improve the school are newer, and have had decidedly mixed results, oftentimes due to decisions made by district leaders that sometimes went counter to community input.

Along with the transformations in the schools, the film also showcases stories about students, teachers, and the communities, all experiencing the constant ebb-and-flow in the fight for equitable schools.

I spoke with The Long View producer and director Susan Zeig about the project.

Q: What motivated you to make this film?

Susan Zeig: There are lots of films about education but not many about the role community organizing plays in education. I wanted to portray that because people often forget it. Community organizing is messy. It takes a lot of time. It’s not always successful. But at a time when one might feel we’re at a low-point for our democracy, it’s the only tool for people without power to make some kind of impact. And you can see small victories.

Q: What do you want people to take away from the film most?

SZ: I want them to understand that if there is a combined effort by parents and educators working as colleagues and allies you’re going to get the best results. I’m not against central governance, we need a bureaucracy, but unfortunately, there is a level of distrust in the system between the policy leadership and the people doing the work.

Q: One can certainly argue that one of the big downfalls of the education “reform” movement is the rush toward ideas that maybe looked promising on paper but weren’t informed by circumstances on the ground.

SZ: I include Life Academy in the film because it’s an example of where, yes, success can happen. But you have to allow it to be done. Life Academy’s principal Preston Thomas says in the film, it took five years for the effort to feel like it was successful. But the problem is in most school systems, something new is changed every two or three years.

Q: You also include a quote from one of the community organizers saying, “Transformation doesn’t happen from the top down; it happens from the bottom up.” People seem impatient with that too.

SZ: Yes, and in the screening guide that accompanies the film I pose that question for discussion because it’s important for people to think that’s possible and that their school would welcome change from the bottom up.

Q: Was it challenging to capture this complexity?

SZ: I thought, perhaps naively, that the filming was going to wrap up within a year because the assumption was the organizing strategy that had been developed and worked so well for Life Academy would transfer into the other schools. But everything in the district broke down. Not only was the money receding due to the recession, but inequality, which was already bad, was getting worse, the charter movement was taking off, and funders who had contributed to community organizing switched to charters instead.

Q: Most of the community organizing depicted is related to improving funding, either making it more equitable or by making it more adequate by passing measures like California’s Prop 30 and the Local Control Funding Formula. But organizing can be about more than just funding?

SZ: Yes, showing the door-to-door campaign that led to Prop 30’s passage shows the significance community organizing can have. But we also show how community organizing relates to more meaningful curriculum for students, like pushing for Linked Learning, another California innovation that Life Academy has used quite successfully. We also show that community organizing can be a lifeline for students struggling with the trauma and problems of low-income communities of color. There’s a lot of research supporting the positive role community organizing can have in these students’ lives.

Q: Why set the film in Oakland? You’re a New Yorker.

SZ: The story in Oakland is compelling to me because community organizers weren’t just intent on getting change in a single school but pushing for districtwide reform through a community organizing model. The big success they had early on was getting change in the elementary schools. Then the work gradually moved into the high schools. This was around when I started filming in 2012. We picked three high schools within about ten blocks of each other in a single neighborhood where the student populations were demographically all pretty much the same – Fremont, Castlemont (which was edited out of the movie), and Life Academy. Life Academy was a positive example of progress already made, and the other two schools were supposed to show how transformations were taking place.

Q: I see a lot of these education documentaries, and often times they are reflective of the urgency people have to, “Just show me what works.” You also show how dysfunction in the system can undermine progress.

SZ: People aren’t stupid. They live these experiences. They want to see what others have done to overcome setbacks. There’s a lot we can learn from that.


USA News


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