School of Thought
Education reform and charter schools are right up there with healthcare reform when it comes to controversy. Twenty-something Madeleine Sackler turns the camera on the issue and the result is a moving documentary that’s opened the eyes of audiences everywhere, from the Tribeca Film Festival to the theater on Railroad Avenue
Madeleine Sackler outside her New York City office
Talk to Madeleine Sackler about her new documentary film, The Lottery, and she initially seems like a lot of people who are out there making the rounds and selling their wares, be it movies or books or miracle diets. But anyone who cares about the state of education in this country would be wise to pay heed to what she has to offer. In making her film, Madeleine followed four families from poor neighborhoods in the months leading up to the public drawing for openings at one of the best charter schools in New York City. The result was a moving and revealing account of an issue steeped in controversy.
In speaking with the former Greenwich resident, it takes awhile to really understand what propelled her through the formidable task of making a feature length, independent film, with no promise of success, and a lot of struggle, sacrifice and sleep deprivation along the way. Finally, you ask about the diminutive stars of her film, the four youngsters whose educational futures—and perhaps their entire futures—hinge on a lottery that is stacked against them. And you see it. She becomes lighter somehow, happier, adoring of these kids who, as one reviewer put it, “could charm the fleas off a junkyard dog.”
“It was definitely a challenge getting to a point where they weren’t trying to touch the camera every five minutes, but we got there,” Madeleine says, referring to the early days of shooting. “They got used to having us around, and it’s just really fun to be able to try to film the world through their eyes.
“To me, one of the best parts of the movie is when one of the kids decides to dress up as Barack Obama. He’s taking it so seriously and he’s pretending to work, and his mom is helping him put on his tie. It’s really funny to see a four-year-old pretending to be Barack Obama. But also it’s just so demonstrative of how influential mentors are and how full of promise kids are.”
These days, education reform is in the air and in the headlines. Charter schools, which operate without many of the restrictions of traditional schools yet remain within the public system, are on the rise. In theory, that freedom allows teachers and administrators to be more flexible and innovative. Some charters might have a specific approach, such as experiential learning, or a particular focus, like technology or the arts. Class sizes tend to be smaller, but not always. To stay open, charters are expected to be accountable for their results. Indeed, President Obama considers them a key element in turning around the nation’s failing schools, particularly in underprivileged communities. They are a major ingredient, in fact, in his administration’s Race to the Top incentive program, which has states competing for millions of dollars in federal funds.
Yet charter schools have drawn fire from teachers unions because they tend to eschew organized labor. Some allege that charters are divisive and that they draw resources away from other schools and abandon the kids most in need. There’s rabid disagreement about privatization, salaries of administrators, and whether charters really are any better than traditional schools. In New York City, race comes into play. Many minority residents feel the schools, often run by whites, are being used to gentrify poor neighborhoods and that traditional public schools have been slighted in favor of charters. There have been noisy protests, acrimonious public hearings and, as Eva Moskowitz, who runs Harlem Success Academy, tells it in the film, union threats on her life.
Madeleine—sincere as the day is long, in her mid-twenties, small of frame, with dark, inquisitive eyes—had no real concept of the buzz saw issue she was about to walk into. In the spring of 2008, the freelance film editor happened upon a television news report about the Harlem Success Academy’s lottery for families hoping to get their kids into the oversubscribed school, and decided to investigate. Essentially, thousands of parents and their children would fill the Harlem Armory and wait with bated breath to see if they had been selected in a random drawing to attend the school. (In truth, the students had already been chosen, by computer, but now their names were being announced for the first time.)
That a child’s education could hinge on the luck of a draw was stunning to Madeleine, and come 2009 she began filming her families in the weeks leading up to the public event. As fate would have it, the film she ultimately made was among at least four documentaries this year that take on America’s troubled schools.
What best distinguishes The Lottery is the compassionate touch of Madeleine herself, who directed, edited, and had her hand in virtually every aspect of its creation, and beyond. The families that she spotlights, from Harlem and the Bronx, appear almost heroic in their perseverance and efforts on behalf of their children. Three of the kids live in single-parent homes. One mother is deaf. One father, like his father before him, provides for his family by driving a city bus. What we see are good people who simply want something better for their kids.
The results are read at the 2009 public lottery for the Harlem Success Academy.
Less heartening are the scenes between the forces waging war over charters in New York City, including one public hearing that’s straight out of Jerry Springer. When it comes to charter schools, everyone seems to have strong feelings, whether they are parents, politicians, school officials, teachers or those who run the charters themselves. Indeed, the film packs a lot of emotion into eighty minutes, from its affecting score, to political dogfights to interviewees awkwardly wiping away tears.
But center stage belongs to the ones most affected by all the commotion, the children. Being so young, Ameenah Horne, Christian Yoanson, Gregory Goodwine Jr. and Eric Roachford Jr. aren’t interviewed on camera like everyone else, but no matter. In just going about their lives, they tell us a lot. And their youthful joy, trust and earnestness in the face of some hard realities—a father in prison, an apartment without furniture, and the gritty streets of their neighborhoods—have you hoping against hope that luck smiles on them when the big moment comes.
“The kids are the most important part,” Madeleine says. “They’re the only thing that really matters.”
BRIDGING THE GAP
Somewhere amid the many hours of footage that failed to make it into The Lottery is a comment from an interview with Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey, that struck a chord with Madeleine: “We need to expand our moral imagination,” he told her.
For Madeleine, whose family, particularly her grandfather and his brothers, is renowned for its philanthropic contributions the world over (from a gallery at the Smithsonian Institution to an art museum at Harvard University to a medical school in Tel Aviv), it was an eloquent truth, and it spoke to a deepening personal outlook that was taking shape even as her project evolved.
Madeleine’s father, Jonathan Sackler, and mother, Mary Corson, are active supporters of education reform and charter schools in particular (in addition to their donations on behalf of local organizations like Greenwich Adult Day Care, the Greenwich Library, Kids in Crisis, and others). Jonathan, in fact, was founding chairman of the board of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, a school-reform advocacy group.
One of the reasons Madeleine wanted to make the film, she says, was to puncture the myth that some schools are bad because the parents don’t value education, or because of poverty or culture. Madeleine says that dumb luck, the fate of being born into her particular family, allowed her to go to good schools. Too many others, however, lack the means to move to better school districts; they are stuck with the underperforming neighborhood schools they are handed.
“As I started learning that there were schools cropping up in these lowest performing districts that were closing the achievement gap, it really excited me, because I realized it doesn’t have to be that way anymore,” she says.
Madeleine’s father is director of Purdue Pharma, the family’s Stamford-based pharmaceutical company. Madeleine, who has a younger brother and sister, grew up in Riverside and Field Point Park. For elementary school, she attended Greenwich Country Day (where she would form lasting friendships with two boys, James Lawler and Todd Bartels, who would, years later, contribute to the success of The Lottery.) She graduated from Greenwich High School, then Duke University.
Madeleine knows firsthand the value of education—the opportunities it affords and the awareness of life’s possibilities that it provides. (In one moving scene in the film, a father laments that no one ever told him he could have been an astronaut had he wanted to be one; it was never even a thought.) “When our kids are getting a good education, it’s easy to think that it’s somebody else’s problem,” she says. “But we’re paying for it in a lot of different ways. So you can look at it from the moral perspective, that this is a moral imperative to fix this and to give kids more opportunities in life, or you can look at it from an economic perspective, if you prefer. But just because maybe we were lucky, that doesn’t mean that things can’t be better.”
Opposition to charters, she came to believe as she moved forward, has more to do with maintaining an outdated system that serves the interests of adults more than those of the children. (Harlem Success Academy’s Moskowitz, who is featured prominently in the film, rails against what she calls the “union-political-educational complex.”) When it comes to public education, jobs, money and political futures are all on the line. “But it’s time for that to no longer be the priority,” says Madeleine. “Now that we know that kids from lower income communities can succeed at incredibly high levels, there’s just no reason for things to stay the same. Even though it’s easier, maybe, that they do.”
FROM THE GROUND UP
When she was a child, Madeleine didn’t have any particular dream of what she wanted to be when she grew up. Everything, she says, seemed interesting. Her father recollects that she was quiet, thoughtful, and observant. “She’d study situations,” Jonathan says. “I remember even as a baby she would study walking. You could see her observing people and kind of internalizing it and then practicing it for herself.”
At Duke, she struggled to select a major. In contrast to the father in her film who said he never knew he could be an astronaut, Madeleine was overwhelmed by all the possibilities. She finally chose psychology, with a minor in English, and expected for a while to go on to graduate school for neuroscience.
A sign of the times: An abandoned school building in Harlem
Then one day a friend asked if she wanted to help her finish a documentary she was working on for her studies. It was about a group of Israeli teenagers, the friend’s cousin among them, who were taking a year off as they got ready for their mandatory military service. After taking a film-editing course that summer Madeleine spent much of her senior year helping to shape the film’s narrative, and then traveled with her friend to Israel to shoot the final footage. She would share a codirecting credit for Mechina: A Preparation, which showed at a number of film festivals, colleges, and synagogues around the country.
After graduation, Madeleine worked for a while at a New York postproduction house, then made her way as a freelance film editor. Among other gigs, she spent two seasons as an assistant editor for MTV’s Human Giant comedy sketch show, did archival research for Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese’s film about the Rolling Stones, and helped edit several feature-length documentaries.
By the time she saw the news footage for the Harlem Success Academy lottery, Madeleine was ready to embark on her own movie. Such a project, with limited resources and help, would become what Todd Bartels, Madeleine’s old friend from Greenwich Country Day, describes as a “Sisyphean feat.”
For a year and a half, Madeleine was consumed with making The Lottery. She had no political agenda, she insists, and really just wanted to tell the story in vérité style. In all, 140 hours of footage was shot, most of it by acclaimed cinematographer Wolfgang Held, whose previous project had been Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno.
But filming was just the start. Besides directing, Madeleine edited the movie, in large part produced it, and took on everything from fundraising (the project cost some $350,000), to getting the music and to formatting the film for its various releases.
Bartels, a graduate student in acting at New York University (and son of stand-up comic Jane Condon), helped with grant writing and advising Sackler about the narrative and structure of the film.
Pushing hard himself in grad school, Bartels recalls one occasion last winter when Madeleine sent him some footage and asked for his opinion. Bartels says he called to ask if she could wait for a bit. “I said, ‘I have no time to talk about this; can we talk at 1 a.m. on Thursday?’ And she said, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s actually good for me because I’m going to be editing up until then and I have meetings all day.’”
Their mutual friend James Lawler, the last of the Greenwich Country Day triumvirate, is equally impressed by Madeleine’s drive and meticulous attention to detail. Lawler, a film producer in Los Angeles, came aboard The Lottery when filming was almost completed, helping create a distribution and marketing plan. “I would say she’s a force of nature,” he says of Sackler. “She has an amazing capacity for work.”
No one learned that any better than boyfriend Don Rotzein. About a third of the living room of the couple’s Upper West Side apartment was buried under Madeleine’s editing station, hard drives and other equipment. She anchored herself there forever, sometimes stepping outdoors only to walk her dog, a Border collie–Labrador mix named Indy.
Rotzein, who runs Greenwich Community Sailing, came to accept that the film was going to be a daily topic of discussion. “Her brain was always sort of chewing on it, even when she wasn’t working,” he says.
For all of Madeleine’s determination, however, The Lottery was also served by her gentle nature and her ability to make people feel at ease, particularly the families, all of whom were black and hailed from much different backgrounds than Madeleine.
“She’s very disarming,” says Eric Roachford, one of the fathers from the film. “If you have any prejudices in regard to race, whatever your prejudices are, she’s disarming, because of that innocent look, but also because of the way she talks to you. She always allows you to create the environment and make it convenient for yourself. During this project, it was never, ‘Oh, come on, please, we’ve got to see you today.’ It was always, ‘Is it all right? Is it all right?’”
For Madeleine’s father, the film called to mind something Dacia Toll, president of Achievement First, a network of charters, once told him about good schools. She said that beyond all the methodology and programs, there had to be a love for the students. “When you add that ingredient of an emotional commitment to the kids in the building and you build that into your culture, then you get really wonderful results,” Jonathan says. “In an interesting way, I think Madeleine picked up on that and demonstrated it.”
MAKING IT TO THE BIG SCREEN
This past April, Madeleine’s efforts came to a culmination when The Lottery was screened at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Among the 400 people who packed the Chelsea theater where it was shown were the families from the film. “The kids had a ball,” Madeleine remembers. “We had a round of applause for them after the film ended, and the kids all stood up on their chairs and were jumping around and waving.”
The Lottery has been shown at six film festivals, with theatrical releases in New York, Los Angeles and other cities. There was a one-day screening in fifty-five thea-ters around the country for individuals and groups interested specifically in this issue. DVDs went on sale in Walmart last summer. In September, the film became available to some 50 million homes through video on demand. And although the film was not nominated for an Oscar, it did make the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ short list of fifteen documentaries that were under consideration for nomination.
Indeed, most of the reviews have been good. “In the same way that An Inconvenient Truth mobilized a vast constituency to take action on climate change, The Lottery will create and energize charter supporters by the thousands,” wrote New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis.
Yet Madeleine’s film has also been panned. During the project, Madeleine sought to interview someone from the United Federation of Teachers, to better balance her story, but was met with refusal. A number of reviewers noticed the absence of a union voice and slapped The Lottery as one-sided. The writer for The New York Times called Madeleine’s film, “this latest charter-school com-mercial.” Variety said it was “advocacy to the point of propaganda.”
And though Madeleine knew by now that she had waded into a political free-for-all, she was proud of her work and protective of the subjects of her film. “It bothered me and it bothered the families,” she said of those who questioned her integrity, “because these are real kids and this is a real situation, and I don’t think that we colored it with a lot of overdramatization at all. This is really what the families experienced, and so to call their experience ‘propaganda’ or ‘advertising’ is unfair.”
These days, as Madeleine promotes her film and looks to future projects, she’s kept in touch with all of the families. One of the children, who failed to win a slot through the lottery, was admitted to Harlem Success Academy when a place opened up. When asked, she’s also tried to help some of the others find alternative schools and after-school programs.
She’s always happy to see the children, and vice versa. “The kids all remember the crew,” she says. “A lot of them called Wolfgang, our cinematographer, ‘Mr. Wolf.’ So whenever I see them, they say, ‘Where’s Mr. Wolf? How’s Mr. Wolf?’ After spending three months with people in their homes you become pretty close with them. And that they liked the film in the end helps too.”