A Tale of Two Schools

Narrated by Morgan Freeman

Morgan Freeman

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?

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.

Featured Video: A Tale of Two Schools

About the program

Bearden Elementary — Sumner, Mississippi

Jill Todd

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

Tavares Gross

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.

Free 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 ›

Reviews and comments

A Tale of Two Schools is the winner of the CINE Golden Eagle Award and the Unity Award in Media.

"I just finished watching this incredible, wonderfully well-done video, and I couldn't leave without writing to you to congratulate you on your efforts in producing this moving, forthright and realistic/truthful chronicle of what it takes to improve the reading achievement of all students! Thank you all for this important contribution in documenting and poignantly spreading the word about the importance of reading in students' success in school and in life and of the importance of high quality, systematic reading instruction delivered by knowledgeable teachers and supported by committed administrators who work to facilitate success. I can hardly wait to share this impressive video with my colleagues."
– Darion Griffin, AFT Teachers

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"A Tale of Two Schools is must-see TV for parents concerned about the way reading is being taught to their kids."
– September 13, 2003

Christian Science Monitor
"A Tale of Two Schools simultaneously demystifies and humanizes the teaching of reading. And at the same time it stirs viewers to marvel that effective help has been so long in coming to students like Tavares and Kathleena."
– August 26, 2003

"Well done! This documentary made me cry (and I'm generally not a crier). From its onset I found myself invested in these schools – the teachers,parents, students, and especially Tavares. Thank you for reminding me thatI shouldn't take my love for reading for granted. Inspiring!"
– Erin Mishkin

The Washington Post, TV Week
A Tale of Two Schools
This Week's Picks
– August 31 — September 6, 2003

"As a special education teacher who uses the Reading Mastery and Corrective Reading programs, I related to the stories presented in your program. I struggled in the beginning with what appeared to be very rigid lessons but found, much like the teachers you profiled, that the students who need the most help, responded in amazing ways to the lessons. I saw your program after a very difficult Tuesday during which everyone in my reading groups seemed to forget the procedures and expectations. I came in on Wednesday energized and more comitted to the programs than ever and my students responded to my renewed energy. The results and challanges shown in your program reminded me why I teach and how lucky I am to be in a supportive school."
– Rachel O'Neill

"This documentary made me cry. It was wonderful seeing the teachers struggling to help these children. Even in the chaotic Mississippi school they made a difference. But the [Walton Elementary] school – wow."
– Dr. Martha Schwartz

"I just want to thank PBS and both schools for sharing the story. I too am a teacher in Pembroke Pines, FL, and the story gave me such inspiration. I was unsure if I was going to teach next year and after watching that story I am more than certain I am going to continue in this feild. I saw a part of me in each teacher and I wanted to express my appreciation.You guys are doing a great job, keep up the GREAT work. It's people like you that keep the profession strong."
– Joy Elouidor-Lyons


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

Reading intervention specialist working one-on-one with an elementary student struggling readers

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