On Tuesday May 8th, 50 directors and their teams spread out among 28 public schools in Pasadena, California to document “Go Public: A Day in the Life of PUSD.” The plan was to follow a wide-ranging group of individuals who participate in the School District, be it Teachers, students, principals, administrators, school workers, volunteers and any others that make a public school district function. An introduction to all of those that think they know, but haven’t actually stepped into a public school for a long time. Each Director is assigned to make a short film of their subject which will then be presented on the website, afterwards all the footage will be collected by Producers Dawn and James O’Keefe of Blue Field Productions to create a feature documentary that will (according to their Mission Statement), be “a window into the world of one urban school district, the many dedicated people, the myriad of opportunities available and the complexity of effectively serving the needs of all students.”
When I was introduced to the project I knew immediately I needed to get involved. My two daughters have gone through the Pasadena Public School System from kindergarten to high school graduation and now are successfully getting their degrees at Occidental College, (in fact, my eldest just graduated “Cum Laude” with plans to teach in public schools). Both my parents were public high school teachers. I believe in public education, especially in Pasadena.
However, after co-producing the 13-part series, “Senior Year” in 2000-2002 for PBS and just recently completing “Senior Year: Ten Years Later,” I wanted to follow a different story then students and teachers, which had been the center of our series. I had recently been amused by a statement from then Republican Candidate Newt Gingrich, “most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.” Well, I wanted to explore that idea, on a regular school day in Pasadena could a kid do a janitor’s job.
My team (of 2) and I met the custodian Felix Lopez at Washington Middle School at 5:30 am on May 8th, the day of filming. He unlocked the chains and opened the gates to the parking lot, just like he does every morning and just like each day at the school, he never stopped working once the gates were open. “I like to see this place clean,” he told me later in the day, “the environment clean really helps. When the parents say what a beautiful school, it makes me feel good.” Lopez is a Mexican immigrant, one of ten brothers and a sister, he grew up poor and attended school only up to 4th grade. “English language was so difficult for me, but I learned by listening, especially PBS. The proper English from England, so many good shows.” He still donates to PBS every year. I liked that.
Vice Principal Eric Gothold said, “Feliz Lopez goes out of his way to provide a clean and safe environment for our kids, but he also takes every opportunity to teach them as well, life lessons, skills, conversation and compassion.” He’s right, everywhere Mr. Lopez went around the school (picking up trash, sweeping the floors, washing down the lunch tables) students and teachers greeted him and he knew each of their names. One eighth-grader we interviewed said, “Felix, he’s an awesome dude. I came here every morning, he helped me with Spanish a little bit. He keeps you out of trouble, he influences me.” His friend added, “Nobody wants to be bad in front of him, it disappoints him. Some kids are disrespectful to their teachers, but they’re never disrespectful to Felix. He’s a good person.”
We didn’t go to Felix’s house out of respect for his wife. Her Mother was very sick and she was emotional and concerned about the possibilities of losing her. That wasn’t the documentary I was making. However, we did follow Mr. Lopez as he picked up his daughter at John Muir High School in Pasadena. She is a Sophomore and is a terrific writer for the school newspaper. Her plans are to go to college to study Architecture. He also has two grown sons in their twenties who no longer live at home. It isn’t hard to see the love he has for his family, especially his daughter. “If we want to learn, we’re going to learn. If we don’t want to learn, we won’t. I want someone to be better then me, anyone, I’m so proud when someone does well, doesn’t matter rich or poor, but you have to want it. I’m keeping this place nice and clean for all of you.”
To Felix Lopez, he helps children learn by giving them a clean, beautiful place to be educated. He cares about his job and the school and it shows. The hallways sparkle. We joyfully filmed reflections of students on the floors of the halls because of how clearly we could see them. It was a cameraman’s dream. Recent budget cuts have forced the school system to cut back on janitors, but it hasn’t stopped Felix. He now does the job of two custodians. At the end of the day, we were exhausted just following him around the large campus. But as we watched and interviewed the Principal Marion Stewart, the Librarian Christina Diaz, the Vice Principal, the security staff and many of the teachers, we were struck by how hard all of them worked. Nobody had time to kill. My team was usually the only ones in the Teacher’s Lounge. They all have a job to do and that is to educate the next generation. The same job that all those that work in public education, teaching 90% of the children in this country. Everyone who thinks they know about public education by presenting a few bad apples, needs to spend a day at their public school before judgement. It certainly realigned my opinion. Go Public.