Making a documentary is always a crapshoot, but Madeleine Sackler is hoping she'll get a little help from the headline.
Sackler's documentary, The Lottery, opening in limited release on Friday, deals with the issue of charter school in Harlem. It reaches theaters just as New York State made the decision to raise its cap on charter schools from 200 - which it has nearly reached - to more than 400. In doing so, the state will qualify for more than $700 million in federal education funds under President Obama's "Race to the Top" incentive program.
"It's a historical moment, a critical moment, and this is another example," says Sackler, 27, a Greenwich, Conn., native. "The fact that the president is articulating reform and that it's working is great. Giving parents more choices is fantastic. If I was a parent with a child, I think the chance of finding the right thing for my child will be increased by having more options."
Sackler's film follows several Harlem parents, whose children are about to reach school age - and who are eager to have them accepted into the Harlem Success Academy. Harlem Success, a high-performing charter school, each year offers fewer than 500 spots for approximately 3,500 applicants. The places in the incoming class are decided by a drawing - with each prospective student having the same 1-in-7 chance of winning a spot.
Sackler, a Duke University graduate who dumped graduate school plans to study neuroscience when she discovered her love of film editing, was inspired to make her film after seeing TV news footage of the 2007 lottery. So she plunged into the idea of filming the next year's drawing.
"I was also inspired by a series of devastating statistics about the achievement gap," she says. "I saw one that said 17 percent of kids in New Haven were working at grade level. But one of the higher performing schools had 71 percent at grade level. And I wondered why that was. Then I saw footage of the lottery we covered in the film. You realize that hundreds of thousands of kids are on the waiting lists for higher performing schools. Parents are fleeing under-performing schools. But you never hear about parents who are dying for something better and having to rely on luck."
As she made the film, Sackler discovered that one reason under-performing schools are unable to pull themselves out of a tailspin is the lock that the contract for the teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers, has on the making of policy.