On a TV screen, a middle-school girl rests her fist on her cheek. Her red hoodie contrasts with her black painted nails. A camera zooms in on her blue eyes fringed by long lashes darkened with mascara. Millard North social worker Eric Depue describes her as a “wonderful, wonderful kid.” But behind those bright eyes, the student struggles with her mental health.
In a counseling session, the girl reveals, “There’s some days where…my depression is, like, on the top,” she says. “I’ll just be like, not okay…I won’t even try and get ready in the morning.”
Her absences increase while her performance at school decreases.
These scenes are part of the first episode of The Mind Inside, a six-part docuseries that digs into the mental health issues of Nebraska public school students.
For these documentaries, Nebraska Loves Public Schools Executive Director Sally Nellson Barrett asks tough questions, but, more importantly, listens. As the producer of Nebraska Loves Public Schools videos Barrett must be, foremost, a storyteller.
She is the story developer for videos that present a positive message about public schools, but the project is also about educating the public on the issues Nebraska schools face daily. Barrett typically picks an idea that will make for good visual storytelling. In the case of The Mind Inside, the idea came from a screening of a previous film. Someone in the audience raised their hand and asked, “when are you going to do something about mental health?” to which Barrett replied, “Tell me more about that.”
One year later, and she was in a meeting with 13 superintendents and asked them to write down the top three issues in their districts. Every superintendent placed mental health on their list. At that point, Barrett knew she had a story. She then asked around, figuring out who was open to the conversation, who was willing to share and educate on mental health. Barrett works hard to acquire the right people for the interviews. The Mind Inside, for example, features Dr. Sharon Hoover, co-director of the Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Hoover is a vital part of the school mental health program in Nebraska. She presents and consults in this state, and Barrett thought it was important to get a national perspective on this issue.
The result of the months of work is an eye-opening look into how pressures at home might impact a student.
“You get a very real vision of what things are really like. It’s true, important, and moving,” explains Patsy Koch Johns, a member of the Nebraska State Board of Education and retired teacher.
The nonprofit Nebraska Loves Public Schools has made more than 100 films in nearly 200 schools. Many of these, such as teacher profiles or Embracing Learning, are uplifting.
The films began as a way to counter negative press and to change the narrative.
“It seemed like schools were always criticized and teachers couldn’t get a break,” Barrett says. “We don’t believe public schools in Nebraska are failing. We wanted to look at all the great things that are happening in public schools and share that with the world.”
“Every year Phi Delta Kappa [a professional organization for educators] does a poll, and one of the questions they ask is ‘how would you grade the public schools?’,” says Jerry Bexten, director of education initiatives at The Sherwood Foundation. “Typically most (about 75 percent) of the parents give their school a grade of A or B. When asked about the nation’s schools, 20 percent of parents grade them an A or B…Our contention was that it’s because of the way that education has been portrayed in the media.”
As with many media furors, stories about schools not doing well grab the attention of reporters, causing an unjust impression that public schools are bad.
The Sherwood Foundation wanted to help change that perception. Barrett was also ready to make a difference in the world. The two entities came together to create the initiative “I Love Public Schools,” which is an annual contract between Nebraska Loves Public Schools and the Sherwood Foundation. The initiative was supposed to be a five-year project—it kept growing. Nine years later, Barrett is still producing videos for I Love Public Schools.
The camera provides the lens into a world most have not set foot in since graduation. A short piece such as a teacher profile may only take a couple of months to compile, while topical videos like The Mind Inside need a longer timeframe, sometimes up to a year. Her staff is small, and all seven of them public-school-educated. Only one staff member has a film background, the others are experienced in different fields. Most have a passion for social justice and are dedicated to making sure underrepresented voices are heard.
It’s important to Barrett to advocate for these public schools.
“The vast majority of people are educated in public schools,” Barrett says. “That is the foundation of our country. We need to make sure we are supporting that. It’s important for all kids to get a good education. We were asked to look at public schools and how we celebrate something we take for granted.”
The initial idea was to produce positive stories about what’s happening in public schools across the state.
“We didn’t have any idea of doing the deeper stories,” Bexten says. “That’s developed over the course of time. As we’ve talked about things, we’ve grown into the deeper ideas.”
As well as The Mind Inside, Nebraska Loves Public Schools has produced a four-minute documentary titled Poverty: Not a Choice, and has shot video on immigration and the difficulty of transitioning into American schools.
In May, Barrett received the Alumnus of The Year Award at Ashland-Greenwood Public Schools Foundation’s annual dinner at Round the Bend Steakhouse. Barrett, a 1984 graduate, was shocked when she saw almost all the attendees wearing green, blue, or red “I Love Public Schools” T-shirts in her honor.
Whether watching an inspiring music teacher in action, connecting with arts, or researching career education in rural communities, the I Love Public Schools films provide a diverse range of topics.
Administrators have featured some selections at their annual conference. Millard Public Schools superintendent Jim Sutfin, Ed.D., jumped on board five years ago and believes it is all about pride. Along with his district participating in The Mind Inside, the “I Love Public Schools” T-shirts have been worn by faculty on select days.
“It’s been such a unifying voice for public education,” Sutfin says. “The stories they tell, regardless of the school district, are related to all of us.”
Barrett, along with her staff, lives, breathes, and bleeds for public schools.
“They are amazing. We gave them the charge and said this is what we want you to do,” says Bexten of Barrett and her team. “They are the creative energy behind it. I think they do an outstanding job, and I’ll give Sally a lot of credit for that.”
“It courses through our veins every day,” Barrett says. “We come here to give voice to what is going on in the walls of the schools.”
Barrett recently received a letter from an instructor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who praised The Mind Inside. The letter read, “Your video got us talking about mental health issues openly and honestly. If this conversation can continue, and we can eventually educate all students about mental health, what a great gift you have started.”
Visit iloveps.org to watch the films and learn more about the organization.
This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.