Reinventing Urban Education


JOHNSON CITY (April 2, 2014) – Can a cutting-edge curriculum and nurturing teachers work miracles with struggling, lower-income urban youth? It happens in movies all the time.

The award-winning film“The New Public” documents what really happens as it follows four years in the life of a new principal and a new public high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and their efforts to use unconventional approaches to reap positive results for the students and their families.

Mary B. Martin School of the Arts presents “The New Public” with filmmaker Jyllian Gunther and editor Penelope Falk as part of the South Arts Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers Monday, April 7, at 7 p.m. in ETSU’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium. Following the screening, Gunther and Falk will engage the audience in a discussion about the film and their work in film. This last film of the 2013-14 series and a reception to follow are free and open to the public.

The documentary focuses on former DJ and point guard turned first-time principal Dr. James O’Brien, who in 2006 opens Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School, where a third of the residents live below the poverty line and the graduation rate is 40 percent. With infectious optimism, O’Brien and his staff of eight undertake a new and unconventional approach – emphasizing strong individual support and arts-based, non-traditional instruction.

Initially, this appears to be a dream come true, but conflicts arise when old realities surface. For four years, “The New Public” goes in and out of the classroom to follow the journey of students, parents and educators striving to reconcile idealism with reality and make a lifelong difference.

This film should appeal to anyone interested in education, says Anita DeAngelis, director of the Mary B. Martin School.

In fact, in an interview on the Reel Independent Film Extravaganza website, the filmmaker said “The New Public” has grown from a piece of cinematic reporting to being used as a guide for educators. “The tagline of the film is, ‘It’s bigger than a school,’ and that really rang true,” Gunther says. “There are so many films that focus on fixing the problems in schools, but, in reality, the problems run much deeper than the schools themselves. It is really about communities and creating outreach campaigns to create change …

“The film is being used as a guide for pre-service teachers – teachers who are studying to become teachers. In fact, Columbia University is currently using the film as part of its [education] curriculum … It is so effective because the film is told from the perspective of students, parents and teachers – the people who are on the front lines.”

The documentary captures the value of teacher-student connections, says Mark Phillips on “Ultimately, what makes this film so powerful are the people and the intimacy between the parents, kids, teachers and film director Jyllian Gunther,” Phillips writes. “The scenes shot in student homes are remarkably intimate and real. The kids and parents are far more engaging than the stars in any fictional film about kids and schools … This is as good as it gets in educational filmmaking and a small classic of documentary filmmaking.”

Greg Kaufmann in “The Nation” calls the film “inspiring and sobering.” It’s not an educational fairy tale, he warns. “With nuance and humor, Gunther shows how poverty presents many obstacles to effective teaching and strong learning,” he says. “It showcases BCAM’s ability to overcome some of those obstacles … but it also demonstrates that no matter how dedicated and focused the teachers and leaders are, a school will too often be unable to transform its students’ academic lives.”

While the film is particularly resonant with parents, student and educators, the film’s outreach director, Kali Holloway, says “The New Public”has a broader appeal. “While there are lessons to be learned from the film about education that are both necessary and pressing,” she says, “there are also wonderful personal stories at the heart of “The New Public” that every audience member can enjoy.”

For more information on the film, visit

Gunther is an Emmy award-winning writer, producer and director. Her first documentary was “Pullout.” She won an Emmy for the PBS educational PSA series, “One Way.” For NPR’s “This American Life,” she was reporter/co-producer on the episode “Kid Politics.” She has worked for 15 years as a freelance producer/writer for WEtv, AMC, IFC Nickelodeon, Oxygen and The N.

Falk, who will join Gunther in the ETSU visit, started her career on Jennifer Fox’s groundbreaking series An American Love Story. Other credits include: “A Letter Without Words,” “Bombay Eunuch,” “Stagedoor,” “Toots,” “Smile Til It Hurts,” “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”and numerous TV credits.

The Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers is a program of South Arts. Southern Circuit screenings are funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. South Arts is a nonprofit regional arts organization founded in 1975 to build on the South's unique heritage and enhance the public value of the arts. South Arts' work responds to the arts environment and cultural trends with a regional perspective. South Arts offers an annual portfolio of activities designed to address the role of the arts in impacting the issues important to our region, and to link the South with the nation and the world through the arts. For information, visit

For information about the ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, call (423) 439-TKTS 8587 or visit “Like” ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts on Facebook and follow it on Twitter and Instagram @ArtsAtETSU.

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