Four Springfield programs will be featured in a documentary that’s expected to air next year. The four-part series, “Our Kids,” produced by the Media Policy Center, examines the widening opportunity gap between rich and poor students and what communities can do to narrow the gap.
The series looks at eight communities with programs designed to bridge the opportunity gap. In Springfield, those are Robberson Community School, a year-round school that involves the community in partnerships and programs to meet families’ needs; GO CAPS, which allows high school students to test drive careers; Drew Lewis at the Fairbanks, which offers programs including parenting classes, a childcare facility, a garden, weekly market and classes for kids; and Middle College at Ozarks Technical Community College, an innovative approach to secondary education for under-resourced students. It was at OTC that reporter, Michele Skalicky, caught up with Harry Wiland and Dale Bell, the documentary's executive producers and co-founders of the Media Policy Center.
According to the producers, they chose the topic for their documentary after reading the book, “Our Kids,” by Robert Putnam and then hearing him speak at UCLA. Wiland said, before that, they weren’t aware of what Putnam calls the opportunity gap between rich and poor children.
"And how, if we don't deal with this issue, we are losing up to 30 million children in our society, and we said, 'my God, we have to tell this story,'" said Wiland.
They wrote to Putnam, competed with other production companies to do the project and were chosen.
After meeting with Putnam, the group chose eight communities with programs in various stages of development and progress that are designed to close the opportunity gap.
They’re not just re-telling stories in Putnam’s book, according to Wiland. The book talks about the issue. They want to look at solutions.
"You know, the laboratories of democracies are the communities across the country that can try programs. Not everything comes or should come from Washington. This is an opportunity for communities to look at successful programs across the country that they can say, 'well, if they can do it in Springfield we can do it in Omaha,'" said Wiland.
They producers began their time in Springfield with a meeting of leaders in the community because, according to Wiland, it takes “an integrated effort to be successful,” and it was the most invigorating talk they’ve heard. Gloves were off, he said, as they talked about various issues.
"These people were gladiators trying to just keep fighting," he said.
Bell described the meeting as “13 people in a room wrestling with common goals with different roadways to try to achieve them.”
After the meeting, Wiland and Bell set out to visit the programs they’d chosen to feature.
When the pair visited Robberson Community School, Bell said they were overwhelmed with the sense of ownership that the parents, teachers and principal have about their community. It's about grassroots energy, he said, while sitting in the OTC Middle College office.
"This is something that we've seen before. We hope to see it again. We're looking at grassroots struggles and achievements. It's a woman down the hall in this office who years ago said, 'you know, there's a concept that we have that we haven't tried,' and she weaves that together, her thread together, with someone else, and they tie a knot," Bell said.
According to Wiland, the director of OTC’s Middle College, Tiffany Brunner, told him the program has a 100 percent graduation rate. He said programs like that have to expand to reach many more people. “Then we can turn things around.”
Despite the success of programs they’re looking at, he said, they can’t lose sight of the fact that closing the opportunity gap is hard. And for them, it isn’t just a documentary. The Media Policy Center uses an integrated media model: from video come transcripts. And from the transcripts, they produce interactive websites, books, digital libraries, educational curricula and issue-based town hall meetings. Bell says they don’t want it to end when the four hours are up.
"Because people have to get together to talk about what they have to do," he said. "There are specific steps that people can take in order to bridge the opportunity gap for our kids. These are our kids. We hope that this helps to bridge the gap."
According to Bell, if communities don’t try to bridge the opportunity gap, “the decimation to civil society is around the corner, and we become the uneducated.” Education, he said, is probably the main ingredient in solving the problem. Another is respect. Does the community have respect for its members across ethnicity, geography and socio-economic status?
"Do some people call them 'those people' or do they embrace them and say, 'these are our kids not our kids, and we only want to be concerned with our biological kids?'" he said.
According to Bell, the net of the successful programs has got to be wider for them to succeed in closing the opportunity gap. His and Wiland’s responsibility as filmmakers, he said, is to try to discern where the net is wider and how it’s working.