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Education on film: Documenting the realities of a public school day

Documentary inspired by parents after defeat of $7 million schools tax
  • The documentary Go Public: A Day in the Life of an American School District moves between schools in Pasadena USD in California to give the public a glimpse of an average day for students and teachers.
  • The film is meant to give the public a glimpse of an average day for students and teachers.
  • "Go Public" is drawing national attention from communities that want to screen the film.

Go Public: A Day in the Life of an American School District is a recently-released documentary film about Pasadena USD that shows the challenges, triumphs and personalities of a moderate-sized public school system.

The Go Public project began four years ago after the failure of a ballot measure that would have raised $7 million for the budget-challenged district. Disappointed parents felt the tax would have been approved if more community members had understood the culture and importance of the public schools.

That sentiment was the creative catalyst for local producers Dawn and James W. O’Keefe—whose four grown children are all products of the district. The filmmakers, who say people nationwide are becoming less engaged with their schools, set out to capture the reality of day-to-day activities in public education.

“The film has now allowed many in our community to see behind the walls of our schools,” says Dawn O’Keefe, who has worked as a news producer for ABC and NBC affiliates.

Visit schools virtually

Go Public allows the community to “visit” schools virtually and “see for themselves many of the great things that go on everyday” and need more funding. They include innovative programs, such as International Baccalaureate, a middle-school robotics curriculum, a diverse student body and dedicated teachers, staff and volunteers.

The production strategy was to coordinate 50 camera crews to follow students, teachers and administrators for one full spring day in 2012 in all of the district’s 28 schools. Forty of the crews were professional, and 10 were middle- and high schoolers trained by James O’Keefe to ensure that the documentary included a student perspective. The effort resulted in 350 hours of footage that was edited into the 90-minute feature.

“The film gives people insight into all different levels in their district, from the principal to the janitor to the volunteer parents to the struggles of an autistic child,” Dawn O’Keefe says. “It takes us into the classrooms and into the homes of students and teachers so that we can see how remarkable this sort of social and cultural institution is.”

Go Public has received national attention, with communities as far away as Virginia and Connecticut requesting screenings. “We all have schools, a school board, superintendents,” Dawn O’Keefe says. “Every district has its own flavor, but the structure of public education is similar across the nation, and we therefore face similar challenges.”

The film has also been screened at several festivals, and PBS began airing it on local broadcasts in April.

“We hope that as more and more people see this, wherever they see it, the discussion is not about the film,” says James O’Keefe, an Emmy winner. “The discussion is about their district and the commonalities they see. People should ask, ‘How can we be more engaged? How can we show more support?”