Dawn and Jim O’Keeffe

Go Public Studio, Fall '13

‘Go Public’ Studio, Fall ’13

documentary filmmakers, advocates, volunteers, parents…

So what do you do when an institution that you care about deeply, and has served you and your children exceptionally well, is under attack?  When most comments about that institution are disparaging and negative? Even at one point area realtors were telling buyers that this community is a wonderful place to live, just don’t send your kids to public schools?

Well, you would film a documentary, of course!

When the bottom line is that hearts and minds must be changed in order to show the numerous positive qualities and significant accomplishments of local schools, then an effective communication tool should be utilized to educate those who have either never stepped into a public school, or those who haven’t been in one in decades.

It helps when you have years of experience and racked up numerous awards in the film industry, but it is still a monstrous challenge not only to complete such a production, but also to insure that it has an impact on the viewer.

Dawn and Jim O’Keeffe marshaled their immense talents and inspired an army of filmmakers to document the day in the life of an American school district.  After watching their children flourish in that environment and as parent volunteers seeing the significant growth and development of their kids’ schoolmates, the O’Keeffes have told a story that few in the country are talking about; until now!

For an update on the film’s progress, please visit: http://gopublicproject.org/

When Dawn and Jim are not trying to spark a national conversation about public education, they are running their production company, assisting their own four children to reach their educational and career goals, teaching (Jim is an adjunct professor of Cinematography at USC), volunteering (Dawn is PTA President at Blair HS and on the Pasadena Education Foundation Board), worshipping at Lake Avenue Church, and enjoying a good cup of joe with each other and friends every chance they get.

A recent conversation with Dawn and Jim about their passion for public education:

As you are well aware, nearly 30% of the school-aged children in our community do not attend public schools. Certainly, you could have made a similar choice with your children, so why did you decide to enroll your kids in schools in the Pasadena Unified School District?

“Jim and I were both raised attending public schools.  We philosophically believed in public education and wanted our children to be a part of the public schools in our community.   We saw the ethnic and economic diversity of PUSD as part of a textured, multi-layered learning experience for our children and we were always confident that they would receive a solid academic education. We also believed that we could be part of strengthening our public schools through volunteerism and by opening our home to our children’s public school friends.

Several years ago the Pasadena Educational Foundation asked noted education researcher Jeffrey Kahlenberg to conduct an analysis of the PUSD and to provide suggestions for improving the district. One of his recommendations was to bring middle class families back to PUSD schools. His reasoning was that these families often are able to give more time and energy to their children’s classrooms and thus improve the school. What do you think of his perspective? If you are in agreement, what are some ways to attract middle class families to attend schools in the PUSD?

“We are very aware of the Kahlenberg Report and agree with it 100%.  We feel that middle class families bring “social capital” and often have more flexibility in their schedules to give of their time and talent to help our public schools.  They frequently not only have financial resources but are also connected to others who can help as well.  Middle class families generally have an orientation toward volunteerism and recognize the critical role of parent participation in strengthening our schools. 

 When a large percentage of children come from lower socio-economic situations, it is incredibly helpful to have a “critical mass” of middle class families who can provide support to the teachers, the staff and the programs…which in turn benefits all the children at a school.  That parent support infrastructure often makes the difference between a school being successful or continuing to struggle.

Conceivably more than any other parents in the district, you have volunteered an incredible amount of hours at your children’s schools doing everything from helping at events, to spearheading projects, to assisting in the classroom, to advocating for public education, to serving as PTA president, to managing an email newsletter, etc. What motivates you to be so generous with your time and what have you learned from these experiences?

“We have been blessed with careers that have offered more flexibility than many people have professionally.  This has allowed us, Dawn especially, to volunteer in many different capacities during our twenty-year journey in the PUSD.  Our volunteerism grew slowly over time, from a micro focus on just the schools our children attended, to a more macro desire to help all schools in the district be successful.  To eventually advocating for public education on a state and national level through our work on the GO PUBLIC documentary project.  

 Our concern for our own children has expanded to include a concern for all the children who attend our public schools.  We have learned that the benefit of public education is not restricted to academic achievement but includes an awareness and acceptance of other cultures and circumstances. For example, our daughter had a two-hour conversation with a classmate after school one day.  He told her about the 8 times his family had moved since they crossed the border in Texas two years earlier.  Our children have seen poverty up close and are compassionate because of that exposure.  They also understand that their poor friend might just be the smartest student in the class.  And they admire the fortitude of those friends who have overcome significant challenges. 

 We have learned it is painful to watch financial decisions that are out of our control have such a destabilizing impact on our school sites.  We have learned that teachers and administrators and support staff in our schools work very, very hard every day with less and less resources in an effort to serve all students with care and a commitment to excellence.  We have learned that often what you read in the papers or see on television is not a true picture of public education.  We have learned that we are in this for the long haul.  We believe in the incredible value of public education!

What suggestions do you have for other parents who would like to be more involved in their children’s education?

“We have a saying at Blair, “PICK ONE AREA AND OWN IT!”  If every single parent just picked one area and said “I am going to do this one thing all year long”; be it helping with Saturday work days once a month or serving on the PTA or taking the P.E. laundry home and washing it weekly or changing the bulletin boards once a month or taking pictures for the newsletter or helping serve or clean up at the monthly staff appreciation breakfasts or donating a set of books to the book club or helping with the campus garden or helping as a sports booster parent, etc, etc, etc. 

 There are so many needs to meet and so many ways to help.  If every single parent would simply “PICK ONE AREA AND OWN IT”…WOW, our schools would have that parent infrastructure that is so desperately needed to keep our schools strong, vibrant and thriving!

There have been several other documentary films that have been produced in the past few years, which have been seen by millions of viewers nationwide. Why did you decide to create the ‘Go Public’ project and what did you think was missing from the conversation around public education in our society?

“Again, our advocacy started out being rather micro at first.  We were focused on helping our community have a better understanding of their public schools and to hopefully raise awareness and inspire informed advocacy. We had been extremely disappointed by the failure of a desperately needed local property tax measure.  We were asking our community for $10 a month or 33 cents per day, to help backfill some of the devastating budget cuts that had occurred for several years running.  While phone banking, we heard many reasons why people were not willing to vote for Measure CC.  People said things like, “Our schools are broken, why throw good money after bad, too much money goes to administration, the teachers unions are the problem, my kids don’t attend the public schools, or I don’t have children.”   

 Many, if not most, of the people who had these opinions had not set foot on a PUSD campus in years, if ever. Having lived the public school journey for 20 years we knew first hand that these opinions were simply wrong, misguided, and misinformed.  Our schools were in fact quite good, often excellent.  The public school system actually works quite well, but must be supported and not undermined.  Our administrators were not overpaid but were overworked. Teachers unions were not the bad guys like they have been made out to be in movies like “Waiting for Superman” and “Won’t Back Down”. 

 And regardless if you have children in our schools, you should still care about the 18,000 children in your community who attend public schools.  It is called supporting the common good because it is the right thing to do and in the long run, it is the prudent and wise thing to do.  The health and well-being of a community starts with strong public schools and the students of today will be our community’s leaders of tomorrow.  

 We made GO PUBLIC to help dispel misperceptions about our public schools.  We made GO PUBLIC to simply take our community behind the doors of our district’s schools for a day and let them see what really goes on; the dedication of the people involved in serving our students, the complexity of needs met daily and the challenges imposed by continuous budget cuts.  We also wanted to capture the richness of the diversity of our students and the variety of programs that were being effectively run on our campuses.  We wanted to capture the beauty of children from all different economic levels, from all parts of the city, merging together in this place we call public school.   We wanted to simply capture a day in the life of PUSD so we could replace myth with reality, fear with fact, and inspire informed advocacy for our public schools.

What did you learn from the filmmaking process, particularly with 50 subjects and 50 camera crews? And what have you observed about the public’s opinion on how we educate our children in this country during the subsequent ‘Go Public’ film screenings, community forums and town hall meetings?

“The scope of this project was enormous.  We learned we are very blessed to have a lot of people, hundreds, who came along side us to support us both financially and with their talents to help us execute the entire GO PUBLIC Project.  We learned that when you strongly believe in a concept you need to just hold your ground and go for it.  We learned that training middle and high school student crews is a very time consuming, but rewarding process.  We learned that by capturing 50 subjects through the lens of 50 different directors, it kept the work honest.  Each filmmaker delivered a four minute short film, which has added tremendously to the depth and richness of this entire project.  Having so many subjects and so many directors allowed us to have an authenticity that has served the project very well. 

 Our focus has grown significantly since we first conceived of the GO PUBLIC Project.  We began to realize very quickly that public education is under attack across our nation.  There is a national crisis of confidence largely because of how public education is being portrayed in the media and through films like “Waiting for Superman” and “ Won’t Back Down”, much of which is driven by an agenda to privatize public education.  We feel the one of the important messages of the GO PUBLIC Project is “Get to know your local public schools”.  Don’t judge and criticize what you don’t really know.  Become an informed advocate.  Dawn has a saying about getting people to visit public school campuses, “Give me an hour and I’ll make you a believer for life.”  We were trying to bring our community into our schools virtually and help raise awareness, understanding and compassion for our public schools and the children they serve.

 We have been delighted by the response to the film in community screenings across the nation.  Some people walk in with one opinion about public education and walk out with a much more positive, favorable outlook after seeing the film.  Other people want to know how they can help.  We say, get to know your local public schools, find out what the needs are and volunteer your time and talents, support your local education foundation, find out how your elected officials are weighing in on education issues, correct people when they speak disparagingly about the PUSD, be informed and advocate for public education. The National Education Association (NEA) has recognized the value of the GO PUBLIC Project and is making it part of the 2013 American Education Week celebration.

From your vantage point, what components/inputs are necessary in order to create an outstanding school? Or maybe put another way, how would you define a ‘school of excellence’?

“A school of excellence has everything working in tandem; most importantly, an effective principal (strong site leadership is critical); committed, enthusiastic and collaborative teachers; appropriate number of counselors and support staff; engaged parents and community partners; and strong leadership in extra-curricular offerings like sports, drama, music and other special programs.   A school of excellence also has the resources needed to support the academic, social and emotional needs of students.

After working in and around the PUSD for so many years there must have been moments of frustration and fatigue, so what techniques do you incorporate into your life that help you to remain positive and optimistic about the state of public education in our school district?

“There have been many, many times of frustration and fatigue, but we have never doubted that we were right where we were supposed to be.  We believe our public schools are critically important to the health of our community.  We believe that public education is at the core of our democracy.  We believe our children are fortunate to have attended public school in the PUSD.  They have been taught well, guided effectively and nurtured caringly. 

 Also, our Christian faith has significantly informed our commitment to serve our public schools and has provided us with much needed perspective along the way.   We are so much richer, in our hearts, minds and souls, for having taken this public school journey.   We will continue to advocate on behalf of public education in the years ahead.