Q&A: Pamela Hogan, Series Creator of “Time for School”

Time for School’s Series Creator Pamela Hogan talks about the genesis of this 12-year documentary project.

Q: How did the Time for School series first come about?

We have The New York Times to thank for it. In 2002, when I was Wide Angle’s Series Producer, I read an op-ed piece by economist Amartya Sen called “To Build a Country, Build a Schoolhouse.” Reporting that more than 125 million children worldwide had never been inside a school, and that in sub-Saharan Africa, 40 percent of primary age children had no opportunity for schooling, he made a powerful argument for how investing in education promotes a country’s economic growth. The editorial was really a call to action, because all 189 U.N. member countries had recently promised a free education to every child in the world by 2015 – it’s one of the “Millennium Development Goals” adopted in 2000 to eradicate poverty.

The timeline was perfect – if we started following children in their first year of school in 2002, they would be scheduled to graduate in 2015, the target year for fulfilling the world’s great promise. I called our Executive Producer, Stephen Segaller, to float the idea of a longitudinal series, along the lines of Michael Apted’s famous “7 UP”. It was the easiest pitch ever – before I even finished my sentence he said “Brilliant! Let’s do it!”

Q: You had the entire world to work with — how did you choose what countries to visit and which kids to follow?

First, we wanted to go to some of the places where education is especially hard to come by – since 2/3 of out-of-school kids live in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, those regions needed to be included. For contrast, we also wanted a story in one of the world’s best school systems – that’s how Japan was chosen. Then, because we really wanted to paint a global portrait, we looked for compelling stories in other regions that would dramatize the challenges kids face all over the world.

We looked for places where something interesting was happening. For example, Kenya had just decided to drop school fees. Benin had started a girls’ education initiative that would challenge long-held attitudes. India was offering night school classes for kids who had to work during the day. Brazil was paying poor families to keep their kids in school. Post-war Afghanistan was attempting to get more kids in school than ever before, to re-build the country. By finding students in those places we could follow those unfolding stories over time.

Working from New York, producer Judy Katz was able to make a short-list of candidates in each of the seven countries, after lengthy correspondence with schools, NGOs, UNICEF, and other sources. The final choice was up to the field producers. Didn’t they do an amazing job?

Q. What have been some of the most dramatic moments, the turning points in the series?

The biggest surprise for all of us has been to see how much happens in these kids’ lives in a short time. At first we thought that returning every three years might be too short – how much would really have changed? Boy were we wrong.

The danger that many of the students in the series cope with on a daily basis is, for me, one of the most dramatic things about Time for School. Kapisa province, where our Afghan student, Shugufa, lives, was relatively stable when we started shooting in 2004; it has now become a Taliban stronghold and a girls’ school near hers was recently attacked. Just walking to school every day is an act of courage for her. In Kenya, Joab and his siblings had to face the terrifying post-election violence last year on their own: their mother has died and their father has abandoned them. In the favela in Brazil, competing drug gangs and police crackdowns have turned Jefferson’s neighborhood into a warzone: in art class he and his classmates draw men with AK-47s and bullets raining from helicopters.

Q: What do you expect to find when you go back in 2015?

Unfortunately it seems unlikely that Neeraj in India will be able to return to school, but I hope that she is happy in her life and able to use the skills and confidence that she developed in her years in school. The others at risk – Jefferson in Brazil, Nanavi in Benin, Joab in Kenya, and Shugufa in Afghanistan – have shown such extraordinary determination and strength, and have already surmounted so many challenges in their six years of school thus far, that I believe they will make it through to graduation. They’ve all already defied the odds – just making it to middle school is a miracle where they live. In fact I see the makings of future leaders in these students, and believe that some of them will go on to great things.

Q: How have audiences reacted to this series?

We’ve had such a tremendous response, and teachers all over the country are creating special study plans around the student’s stories. So many students tell us “I never realized how lucky I am – I took school for granted until I saw the film.”

One college student told us she decided to join the Peace Corps after watching the film! Advocacy groups have also embraced the series and are using it to highlight the need for more global funding to achieve the UN goal of universal education by 2015 – only half the money promised by the developed countries has actually been delivered.

One middle school in Long Island was so touched by Joab’s story that they contacted his principal in Nairobi, Kenya, to ask how they could help. She said the school needs a library – and books to put in it! The students call themselves the Kenya Krew, and for the past two years they’ve been raising money for that library, and corresponding with their counterparts in Joab’s class.