College of LAS « Illinois

Alumni Profile

Turning the Tide for Children

A resilient principal and a moving documentary change fortunes at a Chicago school.


Tresa Dunbar’s defining moment came during the 2007-2008 school year, her second year as principal at Chicago’s Henry H. Nash Elementary. The school, stricken by poverty, was under the threat of closure for low student achievement, and Dunbar (EDM ’94, PhD ’98, elementary education) was exhausted.

She was the latest principal in what was turning into an administrative turnstile, with five principals leaving Nash Elementary in the past six years. Stress had blemished Dunbar’s skin and made her gain weight. She was arriving in the office at 6:30 a.m. and working 15-hour days, with her time spent on the countless tasks required just to keep the school running, from teaching evaluations to cleaning toilets and lifting boxes off the delivery truck, not to mention turning around test scores in a school of 1,000 kids.

As if the pressure wasn’t great enough, she was being followed by a film crew developing a nationally televised documentary about school principals. They wanted a lot more than a quick interview and some footage of kids doing homework. They filmed all year long, looking for character and humanity and how adults and children handled the breaking point. They got it.

The documentary, called The Principal Story, coproduced by U of I alumnus David Mrazek (AB ’86, English), aired in fall 2009 on PBS. Its honest, unblinking portrayal of school life has been well-received by both educators and the general public (an estimated 1.1 million people watched its first airings in September 2009), and across the country it has served as a discussion starter during meetings on school leadership.

Mrazek and the documentary’s executive producer, Tod Lending, were hired by the Wallace Foundation to create a documentary that captured the steep challenges faced by principals. They did so by shuttling back and forth between Nash Elementary and Springfield, Ill.’s, Harvard Park Elementary to show audiences a year in the life of two principals at struggling schools.

The film’s wide appeal lies in how it used relatable, emotional footage that addressed specific difficulties faced by educators. The filmmakers—Mrazek operated the microphone, Lending the camera—gained access to intimate and meaningful moments, including when one of Dunbar’s students is caught with a knife—(“You get or be got,” he says)—and when Kerry Purcell, principal at Harvard Park, wept with her students over the accidental death of a classmate.

Lending, Dunbar, and Mrazek

The key to getting that footage, Mrazek says, was simply devoting lots of time to the project. They were in the schools so often that the staff and students seemed to forget that they were there (though the filmmakers were required to obtain signed consent forms from parents or guardians). After a few days, students stopped waving at the camera and seemed to carry on as usual, even if the camera was almost literally in their faces. Staff grew accustomed to being tailed by the two-man crew.

“There’s no way we could have done the film if the principals didn’t trust us,” Mrazek says. “And it took a lot of courage on their part because they didn’t know what was going to happen [with the film]. They’re working in schools that are tough, there’s politics. It wasn’t in their career interest to let us film in their school but they realized what we wanted to do was show the general public how hard it is to be a principal.”

Though the film tells a story, the issue is not merely anecdotal. According to Education Week, studies in a number of states indicate that only about half of beginning principals remain in the same job five years after they start, with many leaving the profession altogether. At the same time, the National Association of Elementary Schools reports that according to research, principals are the “primary catalysts” in shaping school improvement.

“It’s not a career for the faint-hearted,” writes NAESP director Gail Connelly. “Elementary and middle-level principals require wisdom, knowledge, courage, and even a bit of audacity.”

Purcell was a veteran who had already dramatically improved performance at her school when the film crew started taping. Dunbar, a relative newcomer, was in the fight of her professional life. There were still similarities between the two, however, as both principals worked more than 12 hours a day, had no children, and both often returned home in the dark to empty houses (Purcell was not married, and Dunbar is married to a similarly-busy spouse).

“It’s not a job. It’s way beyond a job,” Purcell says, in the film. “Sometimes you have regrets because then it becomes your life. But it’s worth it, I think.”

At some point in the documentary, Dunbar, now in her late 30s, appears to metamorphose from a frazzled beginner to a focused leader. It shows during an interview segment where she explains why she finally forced an underperforming first grade teacher to resign. The teacher had been unable to control her classroom, and yet Dunbar was reluctant to remove her because the teacher had children and an unemployed husband.

What you don’t see in the film is the moment she made her decision, in the middle of the night, when it dawned on her that she was doing a disservice to the children by allowing the teacher to stay.

“There came a point where I couldn’t live with myself,” Dunbar recalls, in an interview a few months after the documentary’s release. “Regardless of a person’s economic status, they have the right to have their children educated…. I was a good principal before [the teacher resigned], but I didn’t know what I was doing because I was new. I was hard on my teachers, I had high expectations, but I didn’t follow through.”

While Dunbar still tries to help teachers who aren’t living up to her standards, she is a little less reluctant to remove them now. Since removing the first grade teacher, Dunbar has removed four other underperformers.

It’s been about two years since the film crew left the schools. While Purcell has moved on to a new job, Dunbar’s Nash Elementary has been removed from the closure list, and the school has the most improved test scores and best attendance and discipline of any school in the area. Thanks largely to her reaching out to local residents, the schoolyard is now safe for her students. Gangs no longer break school windows. Dunbar says managing the school is easier now, and her contract was recently extended to 2014.

Thanks to the film, the school has also experienced a rebirth of pride, along with a bevy of donations and community partnerships from people who felt moved by the documentary to help.

Dunbar says the film was accurate—almost too accurate. As a matter of fact, she’s never watched it from beginning to end, because she says it’s too painful for her to relive that time of her life. What also remains to be seen is how much the documentary advances solutions to make an educator’s job easier, so that principals in the future might be spared that pain, too.

By Dave Evensen
Spring 2010