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Pro-reform movie hits Colorado theaters

WESTMINSTER – About 100 people showed up Thursday evening for a Daniels Fund-sponsored premier of a school reform flick with a Hollywood twist, “Won’t Back Down.”

While the movie has been slammed by some critics as manipulative and anti-union, people who came to the showing at the AMC Westminster Prom 24, one of nine pre- premier locations in the metro area, Colorado Springs and New Mexico, nevertheless said the film showed some truth. The film opens today across Colorado.

The movie depicts how two parents – actors Maggie Gyllenhaal as a working-class single mom to a bullied daughter with dyslexia and Viola Davis as a burned-out teacher – overcome numerous obstacles to recreate Adams Elementary School in a Midwestern city through the use of a so-called “parent trigger” law.

Those obstacles include a zealous teachers union, run by a cold-hearted woman played by Holly Hunter, who later sees the light, quits and decides to teach; an uncaring teacher who lashes out at Gyllenhaal’s character by not allowing her daughter to use the bathroom so the third-grader wets her pants; and a principal who retaliates against Davis’ character by putting her on leave for fudging attendance sheets – something the front office has long expected teachers to do.

The film is a production of Walden Media, which is owned by Philip Anschutz, Colorado’s conservative billionaire entrepreneur.

Shelly Rankin, who lives in Westminster and whose children attend high school in Adams 50, said she is working on her children’s school parent council to encourage more kids to get involved in activities. Rankin, a part-time library technician and classroom assistant in Denver Public Schools, said she “loved” the film.

“It was pretty realistic,” said Rankin, who said she has been involved with charters and turnaround schools. “Whenever you bring change into a school, there are always people who won’t get on board and who can’t see past themselves.”

In a scene reminiscent of recent school board meetings in Douglas County, union members in the film showed up in red T-shirts while parents and teachers interested in creating a new school wore green “Parentrooper” T-shirts. Similar color wars have unfolded south of Denver over the debate about the teachers union and vouchers.

Priscilla Gardea, an admissions counselor at Adams State University in Alamosa, said she found the film interesting. She devotes much of her time to handling remediation for college students unprepared by high school to do the work.

“Regardless of the politics, the system does need to be improved,” she said.

Chris Johnston, executive director of Westgate Community School, a Thornton charter school now serving 393 kindergarteners through ninth-graders, said a few of the scenes resonated with her and another parent who helped found Westgate.

“We had the support we needed in the right places,” Johnston said. “No school is good for all kids. Having many choices is a good thing.”

Daniels Fund spokesman Peter Droege said 1,874 people registered to see the film, and 500 received vouchers from the Daniels Fund to see the film at a later date. Droege said the organization’s founder, Bill Daniels, was deeply committed to school reform.

“He was deeply concerned about the quality of education in our community and across the nation and felt that competition and choice would help improve public education,” Droege said. “While Colorado has taken a number of important steps to improve public education in the past several years, many children still do not have access to high quality education.

“Parents deserve the opportunity to make the best choice for their children.”

Disclosure: The Daniels Fund is a funder of Education News Colorado.