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Phoenix Forward

From the classroom to the big screen

From the classroom to the big screen

Twenty teachers set out to make a difference

The African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” couldn’t be truer than at Mitchell Elementary School, an institution nestled in downtown Phoenix in a community laden with problems: high crime rates, unemployment, poverty and other inner-city issues.

There, in the Isaac School District, 20 teachers banded together and collectively decided to boost their professional development to assist in providing a better education for the school’s needy students, 99 percent of whom qualify for the Free School Lunch program and more than 46 percent of whom live in poverty. Over the past few years, the “Mitchell 20,” as they are now known, attempted to attain National Board Certification in order to improve their teaching performance. Not all succeeded, but what they learned during the grueling year-long process was invaluable.

The collective move was so profound and received so much attention that numerous organizations came together to support a documentary on the Mitchell 20. The documentary, in production since 2008, premieres October 12 in Phoenix, although high-level educators in Washington, D.C., got an early preview in September.

Meredith Curley, dean of the College of Education at University of Phoenix, says the University decided to help sponsor the documentary — which is primarily funded by the National Education Association — because it resonated with the college’s mission to “impact student learning, one educator at a time.”

“[The film] is a snapshot of what a lot of our schools are facing,” Curley says. “I am glad the film shines a spotlight on the reality of underserved schools and the amazing educators working to make a difference in those communities.  I really hope that it lets people continue a dialogue that there are great things happening in American public schools.”

Journey of the Mitchell 20

Kathy Wiebke, a former teacher and executive director of the Arizona K12 Center, helped put the spotlight on the Mitchell 20 because she wanted to start a conversation about education in America and particularly, to highlight the important roles teachers and professional development play in the overall success of our students.

National Board Certification is a rigorous process. Those who strive to attain full National Board Certification must have a minimum of three years teaching experience, submit four portfolio entries (a combination of written and video submissions) and undergo assessment exercises, which are evaluated and scored. Teachers can also opt to pursue “Take One!”, one piece of the larger portfolio process, that requires only one video entry and is a step toward the more time-consuming and intensive National Board full certification if educators should choose to pursue it at a later date.

The Arizona K12 Center, an organization dedicated to professional development for educators, provided funding for the Mitchell teachers to pursue National Board Certification or to participate in Take One ($2500 or $395), depending on their particular path of choice). Out of the 20 Mitchell teachers who initially tried for full National Board Certification, to date four teachers have attained full board certification and others continue toward that goal.

“National Board forces you to be conscious of your subconscious, and see how you’re impacting student learning,” says Daniela Robles, the former Mitchell teacher who is credited with convincing her colleagues to pursue National Board Certification, after she successfully achieved it herself.

In addition to what the Mitchell 20 was collectively trying to accomplish, Wiebke also wanted to highlight their individual triumphs. Many of the Mitchell 20 came from difficult backgrounds. One teacher is the son of an illiterate migrant farm worker and today has a degree in philosophy and literature. Another teacher spent 10 years working her way through college because a teacher told her that not only could she go to college, she would go to college. These teachers, most of whom are minority educators overcame great obstacles to become educators, Wiebke says. They are a testimony to the good in America’s public education system.

“Working on a film like this is really overwhelming,” says Andrew Benson, co-producer and co-director of the film, whose Phoenix-based company Randy Murray Productions spent 120 to 150 hours at Mitchell collecting footage. “We wanted to tell an impactful story that will move people emotionally and then into action. This really drilled into my head that if we want to address problems in society … we have to look at education.”

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