Petersburg Rising – now available to Educators nationwide

Award-Winning Documentary, Petersburg Rising, the remarkable true story of transforming one of the lowest-performing school districts, is now available to Educators nationwide.

The film highlights a successful approach to overcoming crisis, generational cycles of failure and  systematic challenges to equitable education.

Petersburg Rising, a “must-see” film from Producer and Award-winning Author Alan Blankstein (Failure Is Not an Option), is a testament to the impact of courageous leadership, equitable education, and a community, that against all odds, came to believe there are no “throwaway” kids, only kids being “thrown away.”

Under the leadership of Dr. Marcus Newsome, nationally commended for solutions in closing achievement gaps, the Petersburg school district reversed decades of neglect to achieve accreditation for all of its schools.  The film tells the story through the struggles and triumphs of three students throughout their senior year, humanizing the political discourse about the crisis faced by professionals in education, and revealing how courageous leadership and community engagement in collective impact overcame mistrust, conflict and educator burnout to provide improved and equitable education for all their students.

Produced by Alan Blankstein, in association with Emmy Award winner and Academy Award nominee Sam Pollard (Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crosswords, Blood Brother: Malcom X and Muhammad Ali and MLK/FBI) and Alice Elliott, Executive Consultant and Academy Award winning writer, director, producer (The Collector of Bedford Street, Miracle on 42nd Street) Petersburg Rising is now available for educational licensing through Video Project.  

The film is now being used in professional development with Dr. Marcus Newsome and Alan Blankstein to catalyze cohesive and collective action to address post-Covid learning issues and assure student and educator success in districts and states nationwide.  

Petersburg Rising is our collective moment to “rise up,” celebrate, and expand the wins.

For More information

Donate – Petersburg Rising – Short Film Documentary (

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Further Information –


Petersburg Rising Film Complete – What’s Next?

We have met our initial goals to date, thanks to the generous support of people like YOU who are credited within the now completed, Petersburg Rising film!

Petersburg Rising

  • Has won First Place in the Oliver White Hill Social Justice film festival;
  • Is now being sponsored & supported by the Virginia  Governor’s Film Office;
  • Will Premier in the Richmond International Film Festival September 11, 2021 at the venerable Byrd Theater;
  • Is being featured on PBS-Affiliated VPM throughout the state beginning this fall and before hitting the national airwaves.


While we are ecstatic over having gotten the film produced and agreements in place assuring that will allow thousands of people will view it,  we still have an even greater opportunity ahead: impacting the lives of millions of children, and uplifting families and communities nationwide and beyond.

See updates, get more information about screenings, or donate at the film website: Petersburg Rising – Short Film Documentary (

License/Purchase –

Petersburg Rising

Film Site (see the trailer)
Donations (join us)

This a common American Story of economic boom-to-bust, with an unusual twist: an extraordinary group of leaders entered the picture to turn the tide by investing in children and their education. Petersburg was to be their model for the state, and perhaps the nation. Yet challenges remain enormous.

For more than a decade, Petersburg schools struggled, failed, and even lacked basic accreditation. Students dropped out in large numbers and faced tough times at home in one of the poorest communities in the state. Their future was bleak. Generations of children were lost.

When the superintendent of the neighboring district announced his retirement from a large, wealthy, successful district to act on his second doctorate in divinity, he was asked if he would consider instead running the poorest and lowest performing district in the state. This is that story, told through the struggles… and triumphs of 5 students we followed for a year.


Failure Is Not an Option™ in 2018!

When I asked 13-year-old Angie why she had recently joined the Latin Kings gang on Chicago’s South Side, she looked at me like I wasn’t too bright, but entertained the question anyway. ”Why wouldn’t I join?! My uncle is on the gang, my friends are in it and so is my boyfriend,” she said nodding toward another teenager watching our exchange from about 15 feet away. Shortly after I left with Rudy Espinosa, a Boys and Girls club Youth worker hired to quell gang violence and reclaim gang members, the rival Deuces gang drove by and took the life of Angie’s boyfriend.

This set off a series of reprisals back and forth between the gangs. My friend Rudy negotiated a truce allowing him to create a silver lining to this tragedy when he later saw Angie sobbing at the funeral. “Angie, I’m really sorry about your boyfriend; he was a friend of mine too. But this is what you’ve signed up for by being in the gang – and I can help you get out.” Soon after, Angie took Rudy’s advice and helping hand of support to leave the gang.

Crisis as Opportunity in 2018

After growing up in non-traditional settings (group homes, foster care, and with grandma); getting to college on an EOP Scholarship; founding and running Solution Tree and the HOPE Foundation; and authoring 18 books (the most recent being Excellence through Equity with Pedro Noguera), I can attest to the importance of seeing crisis as an opportunity. This is exemplified in how Rudy provided Angie both a mirror to see the reality of her situation, and a supportive, caring alternative for her to pursue.

If last year is any indicator, 2018 is sure to provide us all great deal of opportunity to work through crisis! This New Year’s message is about sorting through and making meaning of the cacophony of change underway, seeing what’s likely to come next, and developing the clarity and courage to move forward, or as Winston Churchill stated: “If you’re going through Hell, keep going!”

Demographics Don’t Lie…

The fact is that in 2015 America hit a watershed in its school population which has an impact every school leader, teacher, and school community in the Nation. For the first time in history, the majority of America’s students were poor and eligible for free and reduced lunch. (The majority of our students also were not classified as Caucasian.) Meanwhile, the wealthiest 80 people in the world held more financial assets then the bottom ½ of the entire world; that’s 3.5 billion people combined. Likewise in America, the top 1% of the population holds more wealth than the bottom 95% combined. The implications for educating our children and the way to achieve Excellence through Equity will be the topic of future postings.

…but Politicians Often Do Lie

The many challenges faced by those who are in most need of help will become even greater due to the combination of greed and callousness that has guided many of our elected officials to challenge the need for Medicaid, Medicare, CHIP, Citizenship for Dreamers, and much more. While USA rankings in international tests like the PISA continue to slip, our elected officials offer not support, as Rudy had to Angie, but a heavier load of tests, accountability, public humiliation and fallacies around the wonders of School Choice and Private Education vs. Public Education. Yet the one bastion of hope for our collective future is not a patchwork of unregulated and unreliably administered and untested private schools, but a strong commitment to every child receiving a high-quality public education.

What we have learned is that those who know the least about U.S. public education are often those who have the most authority over the policies that guide it. This is now codified by the ironic choice of our Secretary of Education who has never held a single job related to the enterprise of education over which she presides. Ms. Devos has instead declared the traditional education system “a dead end.” This is part of a false narrative around public schools that is setting the stage for the dismantling of them and the diversion of public school funding to private operators.
The narrative is that public schools are failing, and therefore need to be taken over by private and/or regulatory agencies. This story runs counter to the facts – e.g. Our schools have graduated a higher percent of students each year in the past decade than at any time in history; the number of low-income-family students taking the AP exams has gone up more than 500% from 2003-2016 as well. If your income grew at this rate, you’d take your boss to dinner! What we see instead is pundits challenging the validity of graduation rates, and an ESSA regulation that will increase the cost of taking the AP exams starting next year. Poor students will again bear the brunt of public policy.

Changing the Narrative

After helping to launch the PLC movement and running Solution Tree for 12 years, I asked a group of thought leaders from throughout the country for advise on next steps. Ed Zigler, Head Start Founder, suggested we have two challenges in education:

  1. We need to improve our performance;
  2. We aren’t as bad as the rhetoric indicates and need to improve our messaging.

I dedicated to #1 for the past 30 years and realize that it has been a heavier lift than necessary due to the second challenge: we don’t own our narrative about our profession. Therefore, we are swimming upstream. As support for our work often isn’t appreciated, teachers leave the profession (see Ed Week: Teachers Are Quitting Because They’re Dissatisfied. That’s a Crisis, Scholars Say), states like PA and IL are virtually defunding public schools, and others like NJ take over their urban districts and yet fail to improve these schools with impunity.

While educators often agree on the dynamics underway the larger public gets a different message. Educators don’t have a “Waiting for Superman” film, for example. Failing schools are usually an educational manifestation of inequities in our society: they do not exist in wealthy communities. Likewise, we find very few successful schools in economically deprived areas, and when we do we should learn from them. Instead, the exceptional poor but successful school is spuriously used as “exhibit A” in painting all other failing schools as being due to inept or uncaring professionals. We often treat the struggling and impoverished school by defunding it or threatened takeover, as though this will now motivate the mythical lazy and unwilling people who work within those schools. What these schools need instead is the same kind of helping hand Rudy extended to Angie, and that the VA DOE has extended to Petersburg Schools.

Courage to Act

As leaders and defenders of our nation’s children, we must move toward the danger, else it will move toward us and prevail. I’ve written a fair amount about Courage, recently with Pedro Noguera and in the Blogpost following Nelson Mandela’s passing. Over the coming weeks, we will share specific examples of professionals at all levels acting courageously to take collective responsibility for the success of all children!

Contact us for more information.

AASA on Courageous and Uplifting Leadership – Part One

(the following is an excerpt from a forthcoming issue of The School Administrator.  See

It was Monday morning and the middle school had flooded over the weekend. Told it would take two weeks to reopen, the superintendent quickly moved this crisis to the top of his growing list that already included keeping lights on, making payroll, building teachers’ capacity to deliver engaging and rigorous instruction, and meeting state requirements for school improvement in a school district that ranked last in the state.

Yet Marcus Newsome, the new superintendent of the Petersburg, Va., City Public Schools, was smiling this morning during the city partnership meeting that convened top leaders from the state, city and school district. Toward the end of the meeting, Newsome shared, “I’m happy to report that the predicted two-week closing of our middle school didn’t happen. It opened on time this Monday morning! I’d shared with everyone at the school  that we needed ‘all hands on deck,’ and they made it happen.” Newsome publicly acknowledged the school’s janitor and other staff members who had taken the lead in ensuring the school opened on time. He also sent each a personal thank-you.

In the past, Petersburg staff would have responded differently to a crisis. This time there was a significant change. It began with a courageous leader — a leader who runs toward, not away from challenges.

A Time for Courage

Throughout history, leaders as diverse as Aristotle, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr. have pointed to courage — a word derived from the French root word “le Coeur” or “heart” — as the most important of all virtues. This brand of leadership is not based on self-promotion or ego, but on sacrificing for the greater good, which in public education includes promoting inclusiveness, and equity for all children.

Effective leaders use the five principles of courageous leadership to “face the facts and their fears” and address challenges head-on. When these principles guide the work, the efforts build trust and  are more likely sustainable district wide.

No. 1: Get to Your Core.

Friedrich Nietzche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” With school board politics, resistance to meeting diverse students’ needs, and punitive financial and accountability measures serving as distractors from educating our children, we must be rooted in a personal connection to why we are advocating for children each day. The more personal the connection, the more steadfast will be our effort.

Every successful superintendent has a way to stay connected to this core. Aaron Spence, superintendent of the 67,000-student Virginia Beach City School system, reminds himself daily of his personal connection to helping all children and make sure they get the best education possible. He watches prospective principals walk through the building to see if they talk with students and teachers. Did they notice what was happening in the school? Did they connect directly with the students? He makes expectations clear, like the importance of knowing the names of the children who are struggling.

Amy Sichel, superintendent of the 8,000-student Abington School District in Philadelphia’s northern suburbs, celebrates schools’ successes with the students “to stay focused on the small wins vs. the big downs” that poor policy delivers. Sichel is personally energized by her ability to have influence beyond Abington by mentoring incoming professionals to leave a legacy and “keep public education alive.”

The daily routine of Dallas Dance, superintendent of Baltimore County Schools, includes praying, working out and staying connected to his own children and to his colleagues and the district’s 112,000 students. Letting go of the negative interactions and starting each day with a blank slate helps sustain positive energy. As Dance explains, “Most parent complaints are about the role I’m playing — not about me personally.”

When leaders have a core connection to the work, they are optimistic about meeting “insurmountable” challenges. Maintaining this attitude is essential to courageous leadership. As Newsome states, “Each one of us has the ability to set the temperature for the room. It’s important to come in daily with the brightest of views in the toughest of times: We are leaders; others feed off us, and if we aren’t optimistic, they don’t stand a chance.”

For the outline of all five courageous leadership principles and the complete article, see

Copy Right © 2017 America Association School Administrators

Poverty, Dropouts, Pregnancy, Suicide: What The Numbers Say About Fatherless Kids

Alan was recently interviewed by NPR’s Claudio Sanchez about children growing up fatherless in the US. See the full article at NPR:

You cite a U.S. Department of Education study that found 39 percent of students, first through 12th grade, are fatherless.

Fatherlessness is having a great impact on education. First of all, it’s growing, and the correlations with any number of risk issues are considerable.

Children are four-times more likely to be poor if the father is not around. And we know that poverty is heavily associated with academic success. [Fatherless kids] are also twice as likely to drop out.

Dropping out of school, growing up fatherless and incarceration appear to be connected. One study you cite from 2012 titled, “The Vital Importance of Paternal Presence in Children’s Lives,” shows that seven out of 10 high school dropouts are fatherless.

Do school officials acknowledge that this “chain reaction” clearly gets in the way of children’s academic success?

You know, I’ve been in this for 30 years, and when I speak to superintendents, social service people and counselors in schools, they’ll easily acknowledge that at the root of kids’ [academic] problems, is the lack of a relationship with their father.

Building Trust in Schools

The pioneering work around the importance of building trust in schools is more critical now than ever due to our current political climate, growing xenophobia, and the credibility of our media, judiciary branch and intelligence community being called into question regularly. In my first edition of Failure Is Not an Option ™ , I drew on the work of Bryk and Schneider 2002; 2010) and that of extraordinary practitioners throughout N. America who have acted on the fact that if there’s no relational trust between and among the adults in schools, there’s virtually no progress among students in those same schools in their math and literacy scores over a 5-year longitudinal study period.

Yet, there are many strategies that can be deployed – first by the leader and his or her lead team – to build a trusting culture to the benefit of the students. These strategies would be used  both in classroom settings, and in the development of the pillars of a high-performing culture in general, like the creation of common mission, vision, values and goals.

The strategies mentioned below are part of a series that will be shared over the coming months, most of which can be found in greater detail in Failure Is Not an Option (Corwin, 2013). It is my hope that we exert influence wherever we can on behalf of our children. There is no place in which this is more crucial than in our schools, and there is no better place to begin than in the area of building trusting relations.

The framework for building affinity and relational trust can be captured in part via the diagram below.

Each time we engage people in something positive, their communication, shared reality and affinity is enhanced. For example, Project Boost in New Yok, was designed to give impoverished 8th graders experience they would not otherwise have, as a means of expanding their horizons and ultimately moving them toward seeing college as a viable reality. As a result of a shared experience –like going to a museum or eating in a restaurant– the children, their attending families, and school personnel have a new shared reality, begin to communicate around that experience, and enhance their affinity for one another.

In the coming weeks, I’ll share a number of one-to-one strategies teachers and administrators can deploy to enhance relational trust in schools. If you have any questions prior, feel free to drop me an e-mail at:

Where there’s hope,
Failure Is Not an Option ™

Courage to Act: What Should Follow Orlando?

The most recent in a spate of mass shootings calls upon our courageous capacity to act in a new way. The circumstances surrounding this travesty, as in Sandy Hook, Charleston,  and Sacramento, are familiar. Mental instability finds direction and affirmation in hate groups, and a combustible ending through firearms designed for mass destruction. We have only two choices at this critical juncture in our nation’s trajectory: embrace a courageous path forward, or a cowardly one. The choice we make is intertwined with who inhabits the White House next year, and our economic and cultural future.

Examples of Success Abound

What happened yesterday and as far back as many younger Americans can remember is neither inevitable, nor irreversible. Acting courageously at this moment in our history is fundamental to our collective future as a nation. In prior writings on this site (Lessons from Nelson Mandela) and elsewhere in four books (See Failure Is Not an Option ™ for example), I’ve shared five elements of courage, as well as the origins of the word, which comes from the French root “le Coeur” or “heart.”

Echoing past, failed approaches or aphorisms ( like: “guns don’t kill people – people do!”) when faced with a crisis is not courageous. Nor is generalizing the act to an unrelated group, or promising retribution before confirming the perpetrator’s identity. The outcome of such actions is still with us more than a decade after invading Iraq.

Operating from the heart – as if one’s own child were affected – moves the conversation away from the politically correct; pandering to one’s “base;” or being swayed by politically or economically powerful forces in America.  While raw emotion, anger or hatred might hold sway for a brief period, most parents who have lost a child will eventually, courageously turn to questions like “What might I have done to prevent this?” and “How can I protect others from  the same tragedy?” While we can’t bring back those whose lives were taken, we can take steps to assure their deaths were not in vein. It begins with one of the principles of courage: Facing the facts and our fears.

Look North to Canada

If we turn our eyes heavenly – or at least to Canada – we see a democracy with a very similar demographic to America, and with a citizenry that is filled with hunters, and gun enthusiasts. The number of guns per capita in the Northwester regions of Canada are consistent with that found in America. Yet there has been only one mass shooting in Canada’s recent history, and in 2012 they had 173 homicides by gun compared with 9,146 in the USA. School shootings in Canada, moreover, can be counted on one hand. Why?

There are likely many contributing factors to Canada’s success. They invest heavily in the education of their citizenry and far outrank us on international exams like PISA; they have social nets and baseline health care for their citizenry so their mentally ill citizens aren’t desperate as they are here; and their media doesn’t extol the virtue of violence.

Beyond all these factors, a Canadian who may still be inclined to commit acts of mass murder would be challenged to do so. Law-abiding, mentally stable Canadian residents can obtain a gun after the proper waiting period of 60-days, a safety course and a background check. None of these criteria are necessary in America in private gun purchases. It would be easier to buy a gun here than to rent an apartment, or register to vote in many states. This is true of purchasing high-powered automatic weapons as well in the United States.

Other examples of success are available to draw from for courageous leaders seeking real answers over rhetoric.

A Courageous Shift in Australia

The modern-day Australia, that began with the arrival of 11 British carrying banished convicts from  South Wales, has long had a reputation fueled by its rugged and often violent history. Yet 20 years ago in April 1996, following a mass murder of 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania, the country’s leaders found the courage to pull together and change their trajectory. Australia’s leaders had the courage to use this crisis as an opportunity to unite, not further divide the various stakeholders, and provide real protection for its own citizens, versus bluster around getting tough on some little known, or non-existent distant enemy.

Within weeks, the country united to defend itself from itself. The gun-protection legislation they enacted was reasonable and amenable to doves and hawks alike. Most importantly they haven’t had such an incident in 20 years, and gun violence is down 50%.

Courage isn’t about wildly striking out at weaker foes, those who don’t look like us, or those we fear. It’s about overcoming our own fears to take wise, positive, and decisive actions aligned with our hearts.

As Pogo said after a long search for such foes: “We met the enemy and he is us.”  What we do next will be a test of true courage and determine our character as a nation, and all that follows.

Highlights from ASCD 2016


The movement to assure excellence for all students gains momentum following a standing ovation by 8,000 educational leaders at the ASCD annual convention in Atlanta this weekend:

“Equity is the issue of our times. Our children are experiencing great trials and challenges due to the underlying issues of inequity—all for being born onto lonely islands of economic despair surrounded by vast oceans of wealth and prosperity…”
(click here to read the full ASCD article)

View Twitter highlights of Alan and Pedro @ ASCD 2016

Join tens of thousands of your peers in advancing excellence for all your students by using this new approach to equity.

Here are 4 ways you can get started:

1 – Read a summary of the keynote by Alan Blankstein and Pedro Noguera on Excellence through Equity at ASCD’s annual conference by clicking here.

2 – Learn more and register HERE for Alan and Pedro’s upcoming Excellence through Equity summits.

3 – Work together with Alan and Pedro in your region and district. Contact us.

4 – Get a copy of the book Excellence through Equity: Five Principles of Courageous Leadership to Guide Achievement for Every Student here.


Photo highlights of ASCD 2016