Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Principal Praised at Oscars Feels Sad for Her Students

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Principal Praised at Oscars Feels Sad for Her Students

Article excerpt

Among all the heart-rending images in the Academy Award-winning documentary "I Am a Promise," there is this one: The quivering mouth, the welling eyes, the choking voice of principal Deanna Burney when she is asked to imagine the future of her children - the students of M.H. Stanton Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

Burney looks away from the camera. "Some will make it, the lucky ones," she says. "But all kids need the opportunity to have whatever they need."

Something else is bothering her, the interviewer suggests.

"I have to wonder," Burney says, fighting back tears, "whether or not I'm up to it."

Burney, as it turns out, decided she was not.

At the end of the 1991-92 school year, as filmmakers finished their work at Stanton, she left, frustrated by what she perceived as a district bureaucracy unwilling to provide the support she needed, tormented by self-doubt about whether she was actually helping her kids.

Burney went on sabbatical for six months. She worked as a principal at three schools, staying no more than a semester at each. In September, she'll be off to Harvard, to get a doctorate in urban education. And maybe find a way to reach more than "the lucky ones."

During Monday night's Oscar telecast, "I Am a Promise" producers Alan and Susan Raymond thanked Burney in front of 78 million American viewers. But Tuesday morning did not find her basking in new-found fame. She was in her office at the Allegheny School for adolescent girls with behavior problems. And though the congratulatory phone calls poured in, her voice had an edge of sadness.

What the children of Stanton needed was more than a daily recitation of "I am talented, I am intelligent, I am gifted." Burney wanted to make them believe it, by changing the way they were being taught. That was a bigger job than one principal could do.

Stanton school sits in the midst of a wasteland. More than 90 percent of its children live in poverty, most without fathers.

In her three years at Stanton, Burney struggled to keep the building clean and painted and heated, the schoolyard free of used needles. She dealt with police officers and parents at their wits' end. …

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