This film explores what public education meant to South Bronx Latino maverick educator, Pedro Santana, and what he, in turn, meant to public education. Infectious in his optimism, Santana becomes one of the most influential public school teachers and then administrators in the New York public school system after turning his troubled Bronx middle school, MS 391, around. He is unapologetic in his commitment to create change for kids, no matter the odds. When a glowing front page New York Times article catapults him into the spotlight, he is recruited and then accepts a promotion to use his famed ‘out of the box’ and transformative practices to save a corrupt and divided suburban school district.
But the political challenges there may simply be too great, even for the infallible Santana. In order to continue his life’s mission that ‘every kid can learn’, (he himself was labeled ‘special ed’ as a child), he realizes that he must venture beyond not only the restrictive ‘four walls’ of the public education system, but also his own neighborhood, city and even his own country. This is a profound story of how one person actualizes learning and positive change in children, adults, environments and communities through an ‘impact’ ripple effect strategy that he has effortlessly perfected. ‘My Name Is Pedro’ is an essential and timely reminder of the importance of great educators that exist within the infrastructure of our country’s public education system.
Public Education meant everything to a young Pedro Santana, a South Bronx welfare kid who was struggling with physical and learning disabilities, growing up in the 1970’s in closed quarters with a father who was in and out of prison and a mother who was struggling to raise her six children and survive. School was a big challenge at first but then became a haven – the place where he would, due to the commitment of his fantastic third grade teacher, Ms Torres, find his own voice and learn that he was not actually ‘Special Ed’ , but rather a ‘different kind of learner’ . Miss Torres makes a commitment to change Pedro’s life. He learns how to perform on stage and to tell stories. Storytelling and humor become the bedrock in the Santana household. Ms Torres’ teachings and her continued mentorship of Santana, not just in third grade but for the remainder of his education, inspires him to create impact and change for others. She is ‘what good looks like’ to Santana. He joins the Peace Corps and travels to Africa. When he survives a near fatal accident he returns home and makes a commitment to devote his life to education and teach kids who, he says, ‘are just like me and deserve to have good.’
Santana becomes one of the most influential public school principals in the New York City school system, when he turns his South Bronx middle school, MS 391, which is plagued with failing test scores and crime, around. Santana’s work gets noticed and he is featured on the front page of the Metropolitan Section of The New York Times. The article highlights his out of the box approach to teaching and the unconventional way in which he has redesigned the Principal’s office, removing his desk and creating a space that is interactive, inviting and open.
MY NAME IS PEDRO is a years long exploration into Santana’s life and what drives him to teach, to create impact and change, not just for the students but also with each and every person he encounters. In an opening scene, when asked ‘do you want to be remembered?’ He responds, ‘I do, I really do, I want to have an impact on people’s lives.’
Donning long flowing hair while greeting everyone with a smile and a hug, he challenges stereotypes of how a school principal or administrator should look and behave. Through Santana’s innate gift of storytelling, he uses humor to engage his students, with unapologetic stories of his own life and his challenging childhood; a childhood most of his students can relate to.
He unabashedly shares some of the most intimate and even embarrassing moments from his life – like the story of his son who regrettably gets him arrested and stories around being raised in a welfare family that struggled with crime and drugs. He shares the story of how he was not initially accepted into Columbia teacher’s college, but rode the subway into Manhattan to personally compel the Dean of Admissions to accept him, which he ends up doing.
By breaking down presumptions around behavior, appearance and even the way in which students and staff exist within their physical space, we see the dividing line between the formal “us” and “them” environment that we were so accustomed to from our own school experiences, disappear. This creates an empowering cohesion. Students say, ‘he is one of us’, ‘he gets me’. Santana is the Pied Piper, as one administrator says of him, ‘he leads and you just want to follow’.
The way in which Santana co-exists in partnership with his students and staff creates an army of mentors and learners. Test scores rise. Crime is nearly eradicated. As one parent states, ‘He made it safe for our children.’ He empowers and enlists the community to believe in the school and that EVERY kid can learn. The impact on those around him is profound. Scores of people, whether having come in contact with him for one day or one year – all say one thing – Pedro changed me.
After that New York Times article, he is hand picked for a promotion where he is called to save a deeply troubled school district in East Ramapo, NY. The school board is largely made up of Hassidic Jews, whose own children do not attend the public schools but instead attend their own private Yeshivas. In his new role as Assistant Superintendent of schools there is something that excites Santana since he can now affect several schools and not just one. He is ready for the challenge. An eternal optimist, he believes the same out of the box methods that were so proved successful in the years that preceded East Ramapo, will be as effective.
However, bureaucratic politics in the East Ramapo school district, documented in seemingly endless board meetings (more often erupting in fights than any kind of progress) may actually prove too insurmountable even for the powerful force and influence of the ever-optimistic Santana.
The power struggle between a community that rallies around him and the financial politics of a board that Santana will not compromise his own beliefs to assuage creates the tension filled crescendo that seemingly leads to the beginning of the end of Santana’s teaching career. He is strategically and unmercifully pushed out in a dramatic fanfare of protests and amongst accusations of a lack of certification.
These events force him to question his life’s mission and future. But he does not give up, even in the face of his own mortality. He will not be deterred. Santana now feels that he must venture far beyond the rigid ‘four walls’ environment as we travel with him into the global landscape.
This is a profound story of how one person can effect positive change in children, adults, environments and communities through a kind of unseen link – a ripple effect strategy that Santana has, despite his own humble and challenging childhood, effortlessly perfected. A moving film, essential in our current landscape, it is a call to action as well as an underscoring of the importance of great teachers.
I read an article in the New York Times called, “The Principal’s Office” about Pedro Santana, a Principal in the South Bronx who was shown amongst his students in what looked like a party.Here it is; the inspiration for our years long journey to document the magnetic and powerful public school educator Pedro Santana. Want to read the article? Click here.
In it, Santana is shown dancing with his students. They are full of joy and watching him with admiration. His mouth is agape, his arms are waving in the air and he is – happy. His long curly hair more befitting a rock star than a Principal, it perfectly captured a moment in a person’s life that perfectly represents who they are, what their essence is. I decided I had to meet him.
When I called 391 to reach Santana, I expected to leave a message – it was the summer after all. Five seconds after speaking with the school’s secretary Santana picked up the phone to greet me. I told him that I was a producer and that I was interested in his story, but I actually had no definitive pitch in mind, I was winging it and the conversation was moving faster than I expected. Within ten seconds of that initial greeting, he had set a plan for me to come and meet him at his school the following day. ‘Are you sure’, I asked? ‘I hope it isn’t an inconvenience; I can also come and meet you next week’. ‘Next week’, he laughed. ‘I could be dead next week!’
This kind of immediacy of action would become the cornerstone of the story I tell. For Santana, there was no later, only now. After all, he had “work to do”. He had a failing Middle School in the South Bronx that he turned around. Since the Times article, he was being recruited to leave the city, the neighborhood he grew up, to teach in the Suburbs, in Rockland County, where trouble was already brewing between the community and the school board. Simply put, there were kids in need and where kids were in need, Santana had to go. His life mission, his work, was to make sure that every kid was lifted up in their classrooms and that even the hardest to reach kids would join him in his enthusiasm for learning but also in his commitment to doing your best every day. To create, as he says, impact.
My relationship with Santana became the most profound friendships I have ever known. I had truly never met anyone who turned every negative into a positive, who when you were with him, in his presence, you felt like the best version of yourself. Santana changed my life during the making of this film and beyond. He changed the way I view the world.
As a first time director, I felt like I had been given a huge gift and that was Santana’s trust in me. I was asking the questions, but he was leading the narrative. Several years later, I was still there documenting and the ever optimistic and infectious Santana would still be changing lives, impacting the world and embracing his droves of fans, and even detractors, along the way.
What I did not realize was how much of the story I originally set out to tell, a story about a charismatic educator, would change over the years. Through hugely unexpected and dramatic twists and turns, Santana is all but wiped out of the public school system, he is arrested and also forced to face down his own mortality; and not in that specific order.
We ended up with is a portrait of a fighter and a defender of whole communities. An unstoppable force who greets every person with a hug. We cannot help but fall in love with him.
That is the contrast that is created in the film, we are so inspired by Santana but so disheartened by the threat posed to pubic schools and the children and their families whose only hope for change, it seems, is Santana.