‘Most Likely to Succeed’ examines the importance of modern education
September 18, 2015
Education is a hot-button topic in the United States and is constantly reexamined by policy makers, teachers and parents.
One parent, Ted Dintersmith, found himself disillusioned with his children’s schooling and wanted to do something about it. So, he funded and served as executive producer of the documentary "Most Likely to Succeed," which was a hit at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
The film, directed by Greg Whitely, examines the teaching and learning methods of High Tech High in San Diego, California.
"It looks at project-based schooling and the issue of the antiquated school system and brings out the fact that those who established the system way back when could not have imagined what the world would be like in 2015," said Katharine Wang, executive director of the Park City Film Series.
On Thursday, Sept. 24, the Park City Film Series, Sundance Institute, the Park City Education Foundation, the Park City School District and the Weilenmann School of Discovery will present a free screening of "Most Likely to Succeed" at the Jim Santy Auditorium of the Park City Library at 6:30 p.m.
A post-screening discussion, moderated by KPCW News Director Leslie Thatcher, will feature a panel that will include Dintersmith, Weilenmann School of Discovery Executive Director Cynthia K. Phillips, Park City School District’s associate superintendent of teaching, learning and technology Dr. Kathleen Einhorn, Community BanCapital’s Al Landon and STEM Coordinator Charlie Mathews.
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Dintersmith conceived the idea for the documentary after spending two decades on the board of National Venture Capital Association, an organization that represents the venture industry during public policy debates in Washington, D.C.
"When I was there, I saw how quickly innovations eliminate the structure of routine jobs in the economy," he said. "It’s accelerating. It’s an exponential phenomenon. You can see all the national economic data we’re all concerned about — the disappearing middle class, the declining median wage and dropping employment numbers. And it’s only going to get dramatically worse."
Then Dintersmith saw how schools educated and operated.
"This started with my own kids and then it broadened into a wider scope," he said. "When you look at the schools, it’s as if they are almost designed to crush the creativity out of kids. When as you study [the United States’] education history, you realize that there is no ‘almost.’ Schools were designed to eliminate creativity and innovation, but was a logical design at the time."
So, Dintersmith decided to do something.
"After thinking about different strategies, I felt if I could find a good director, I could fund a documentary that would have the potential to create an impact," he said.
That’s when he discovered filmmaker Greg Whiteley.
"It was an unusual situation," Dintersmith said. "In most cases, a filmmaker has an idea for a film and then go chase funding sources, or a commercial funding source will ask a filmmaker to do something that the filmmaker has no interest in doing or they call the shots on a certain project. In this case, I did a six-month search and talked with a bunch of different directors. I was looking for a director who could make an inspiring film, because most education films I have seen are boring or depressing or both."
The goal was to find someone who could make a documentary that stood out.
"When I first called [Greg], I told him that I wanted someone to do a documentary that would have this in it and you will have to interview this person and this person and this person, so it will be so logically compelling that it would change the mind of everyone who sees it," Dintersmith said. "To his credit, Greg said, ‘Not only will I not make that film for you, if someone does, you will be very disappointed.’"
That’s when Dintersmith realized he found the right director.
"I asked Greg what he meant and he said if you don’t connect with the audience in a way that boring lectures and talking heads will never do, this film will go in one ear and out the other," Dintersmith explained. "So, I funded the film and pointed him in the direction, but I trusted him. He was great with filling me in and asked advice, but the great thing was he, for the most part, completely ignored me."
Whiteley discovered High Tech High after filming at various schools.
"We actually didn’t know where the story was going to take us, and he honestly loved the space at High Tech High, and that’s where he found the story," Dintersmith said. "We were fortunate that he was there at the first day of class and followed the students through the completion of the projects they were working on.
"I did help point him to the experts that appear in the film, but the story is about these two students and the adults around them," he said. "We wanted to make a great and inspiring story that has a beginning, middle and end that keeps the audience in their chairs, wide awake and alert, but what Greg also did was find the overall message about the massive implications of society as we know it do not get lost."
The film premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, which was a dream goal for the filmmakers.
"When we heard the Sundance Film Festival accepted the film, you probably heard me yell," Dintersmith said with a laugh. "The great thing that makes me feel so passionate about Sundance is that they open up a window on the very best of humanity and to be in the company of all of these other great films was like being a kid in the candy store."
Since then, Dintersmith has received more than 100 requests per week from school communities around the country to screen the film.
"It’s because when people come to watch it, they get energized and want to talk about school in the context of possibility," he said. "We try to find different ways to screen it and keep in touch with the film.
"Some people would tell me I am crazy to turn down offers such as Netflix and some tell me that doing that was a bold and will ultimately be a successful movie," Dintersmith said. "The good thing is we still control the film’s destiny and we’re doing all of these community screenings."
Dintersmith’s trip to Utah from his home in Rhode Island is one of many visits he has planned this year.
"We are taking the film to all 50 states," he said during a conference call with The Park Record and Sundance Institute. "Not only will we screen in Park City, but we are screening in Provo and in Salt Lake City. While we’re there we will meet with several top state legislators as well. These are the people who make decisions regarding the future of our kids."
Kara Cody, Sundance Institute’s senior manager of Utah community programs, said screenings of Sundance films such as the one for "Most Likely to Succeed" are just another aspect of the nonprofit’s mission.
"We have a rich tradition of giving back to the community and strong film programming, not only during the festival, but on a year-round basis," Cody said.
The Park City Education Foundation and the Park City School District had reached out to Sundance to screen the film after this year’s festival.
"We did some outreach screenings to adults and students during the festival and had a huge response, so much that people wanted to continue the discussions going within the community," Cody said. "We then found out the Weilenmann School of Discovery and the Park City Film Series also wanted to present the film, so we all decided to do this together.
"Part of our mission is to introduce and engage new film audiences as well," she said. "So, to hear people talking about a film such as ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ means we are doing our job."
The Park City Film Series, Sundance Institute, Park City Education Foundation, the Park City School District and the Weilenmann School of Discovery will present a special free screening of Greg Whiteley’s documentary "Most Likely to Succeed" at the Jim Santy Auditorium of the Park City Library, 1255 Park Ave., on Thursday, Sept. 24, at 6:30 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.parkcityfilmseries.org .