My family lives on the Westside of Los Angeles. My wife, producer Jennifer Welsh Takata, and I are both LA natives and products of private schools. We went to college, have good jobs and are engaged in the education of our children. On the surface, it might seem like we live in a different world from our neighbors 15 miles away in Compton. Look a little closer and you’ll realize that we have much more in common than you imagined.
When we started the film, our neighborhood elementary school had been designated as “program improvement” for four straight years as a result of failing to make “adequate yearly progress” as identified by the state. Our other option, private school, costs approximately $25,000 a year in LA, which is unaffordable for us when you multiply that by two children and 13 years.
Then came the really harsh dose of reality. We applied to five high-achieving public schools in the area via lottery and received spaces at none. As a result, our daughter spent a third year in preschool so that we could try our luck again the following year. We saw friends who could afford private school opting out of the public school system, and others who couldn’t afford it were often forced to settle for less.
When we heard about the “Parent Trigger” law, we finally saw a potential reform that put the onus of responsibility back on us. We could complain about our local public school or we could try to change it. But the law also brought with it many questions: Could parents really turn around a failing school? How quickly would that happen? With this power, would more parents come back to public schools?
To answer these questions, we made a documentary. Although we had no funding for the project, we were inspired by the possibilities of organized parent power and felt that this moment in history should be documented. This film was a perfect combination of Jen’s expertise in education, my experience in film, and our shared belief in social justice.
We began shooting the film while Jen was pregnant with our second child and shot a critical board meeting in Compton on the same day that our second daughter was born. We turned our living room into a post-production office, and our children saw the editor so much that they assumed her to be part of the family. With the generous help of family and friends, we somehow made it out the other side with a completed film, a stronger marriage, a clearer understanding of the issues (and one daughter who swears that she will “never ever make a documentary in [her] whole life”).
We feel lucky to have witnessed the strength and courage of other parents who also want a better future for their kids and the lengths that they went to in pursuit of this goal. We don’t have all the answers, but we hope that by telling their complex and emotional story in an honest way, our film can serve as an inspiring and informative touchstone for anyone who believes that a quality education is a birthright for all.
Examples of James’ award-winning work as a director can be found at www.jamestakata.com.