Skip to main content
Young African American student reading aloud in front of a chalkboard

A Tale of Two Schools

Narrated by Morgan Freeman

In this PBS special, Academy Award-winner Morgan Freeman is the narrator of A Tale of Two Schools, a one-hour documentary that tells the intimate story of a tumultuous year at two vulnerable schools. It’s a tale of hope, of faith, and of the power of committed adults to help shape the life of a child.

On this page:

About the documentary

Tavares Gross is just starting first grade — but he’s already way behind. He doesn’t know his letters. He doesn’t even know what a book is for. And Tavares is not alone.

Across the country, schools are struggling with their most basic job: teaching kids to read. Thirty-six percent of all fourth graders read below the “basic” level, meaning they can’t understand a simple story, or they can barely read at all. What does it really take to turn our schools around?

Bearden Elementary — Sumner, Mississippi

Bearden sits in the middle of a cotton field, as if to say, “Nothing will ever change.” Superintendent Reggie Barnes, though, thinks otherwise. He’s committed to the point of obsession, working late every night to recruit new teachers, to raise more money, and to keep his staff motivated. He vows not to rest until the children start doing better. But after six years of relentless work, Barnes is wearing down. His marriage has dissolved, his hair has turned gray, and, at 48, he already has an ulcer.

Reading is just one of many critical needs at Bearden. Barnes has built a health clinic, new classrooms and a badly needed playground. Now, after years of struggle, things are looking up. Mississippi has launched a statewide reading reform effort, and Netscape tycoon Jim Barksdale has pledged an additional $100 million to help the weakest schools in his home state. But Bearden is behind in training its teachers in the reading curriculum and late in buying desperately needed books. With a roomful of children who need a lot of help, rookie teacher Jill Todd is understandably anxious. “I don’t feel 100 percent prepared to go in a classroom and teach reading,” says Todd. “It is really like chaos.”

Walton Elementary — Fort Worth, Texas

At inner city Walton Elementary, the challenges are just as great. Kids stream in from housing projects in the shadow of an interstate highway. “We have children at Walton who don’t know the alphabet,” says Vanessa Kemp, the lead reading teacher. “They can’t write their names. They don’t know how to open up a book. They don’t even know what a book is for.”

Ms. Kemp and the staff at Walton have been focused on reading instruction for five years — and the results have been dramatic. Historically, Walton was one of the worst schools in Texas, but now it’s striving for an “exemplary” rating — the highest grade a school can earn. Yet even now, nothing happens automatically. Every year, a first grader like Tavares Gross shows there is a new group of kids who desperately need help.


Bearden and Walton are hardly alone. Around the country, in all income groups and ethnicities, children are having trouble learning to read. The stakes are high: kids who read poorly are at high risk for depression, delinquency and substance abuse. “Reading is the gateway skill,” says Phyllis Hunter, who led a major reform effort in Houston. “I call it ‘the new civil right’ because children can’t access their other rights unless they can read and read well.”

Bearden and Walton have both embraced reading reform, but they are at very different stages of the process. At Walton, a committed principal, dedicated teachers and a unified teaching approach have begun to deliver dramatic results. At Bearden, the changes have just begun, and it’s clear that money alone is not the answer.

Watch the documentary

Discussion guides

Parents’ Discussion Guide

What happens before a child enters kindergarten is vital to reading success. And research shows that when parents play a role in their child’s academic career, students have better attendance, make greater achievement gains, and have fewer behavior problems. This one-page guide includes five thought-provoking questions to discuss with parents.

Download guide ›

Teachers’ Discussion Guide

Teachers are charged with discovering the proper balance of instructional methods that work for each individual student in learning to read. They are responsible for the enormously challenging task of finding the magical mix that works for each child. This one-page guide includes seven thought-provoking questions to discuss with teachers.

Download guide ›

Community Discussion Guide

All over the country, across all ethnic lines and socioeconomic levels, schools are struggling with their most basic job — teaching kids to read. This one-page guide includes seven thought-provoking questions to discuss among those concerned about reading achievement in local schools.

Download guide ›


  • CINE Special Jury Prize
  • CINE Golden Eagle Award
  • Unity Award in Media
  • Finalist, New York Festivals 2005 International Television Programming and Promotion Awards