‘Won’t Back Down’ transforms a failing school system

Terese Torgersen

The American educational system is failing and two determined mothers stand up for their children’s rights in the new drama “Won’t Back Down” directed by Daniel Barnz.

Jamie, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is a lower class single mother and Nona, portrayed by award-winning Viola Davis, is a veteran teacher. Both mothers decide to transform the failing Adams Elementary School with a new and progressive program. Together they stand up against an overpowering bureaucracy.

Jamie’s daughter Malia is dyslexic. Jamie works two jobs as a bartender and auto-lot secretary in an attempt to readmit Malia at her old school, instead, Malia has to continue going to Adams Elementary School, the lowest rated school in the city of Pittsburg. The teachers at Adams have given up on teaching. The budget cuts have forced them to cram two years of teaching into one. When trying to explain the issue to the principal he replies with “Every kid can’t rise to the top.”

In the event of the school system failing, the film places no blame on the teachers, portraying them as heroes even though they sit idly by for large portions of the film. Jamie, the will strong single mother, uses significant screen time to persuade Nona to take action.

Once voted  teacher of the year, Nona exemplifies a miserable teacher having lost faith in her profession and her students. While going through a rough divorce, she is trying to give her academically challenged son what he deserves. Nona must reexamine her reasons for becoming a teacher in the first place.

The movie uses a fictional legislative Fail Safe Act, based on an actual legislative, Parent Trigger law that was  passed in California in 2010. The Parent Trigger law gives parents the right to organize and demand a change to a failing school based on what’s good for the children and not the adults. To be able to transform the school, they must gather 51 percent of parent signatures and implement one of four turnaround models, including in-district reforms and out-of-district reforms, according to parentrevolution.org. If the majority of the parents agree, the school can be taken over, re-staffed or turned into a charter school. Seven states have implemented the law and over 20 states are considering it.

“Won’t Back Down” is based upon the idea that if you change the school you change the neighborhood. Two percent of students attending public schools go to college while two percent of students attending private schools don’t go to college. The movie is not only about a failing educational system, it’s about relationships, family issues and fighting for what you believe in.