By Carlo Wolff | Staff Reporter
Cleveland Jewish News

Laura Paglin, Director of 'Facing Forward: A Student's Story'

Laura Paglin, Director of 'Facing Forward: A Student's Story'

“Facing Forward: A Student’s Story,” Laura Paglin’s documentary about Cleveland inner-city kid Tyree Stewart’s experience with the innovative Entrepreneurship Preparatory School, is a tale of struggle, aspiration and eventual triumph.

Paglin, a filmmaker from Cleveland Heights, has spent years developing the movie, which in an earlier version screened at festivals in Cleveland and Indianapolis. It was voted an Audience Award runner-up at the 2011 Cleveland International Film Festival.

Now, chronologically updated, musically refreshed and trimmed down, it’s going nationwide. A co-production of WVIZ/PBS and Creative Filmmakers Association, it will make its public television premiere on WVIZ on May 13.

Stewart entered seventh grade at E-Prep, a middle school on East 105th Street near St. Clair Avenue in Cleveland, in 2006, its first year. He had only a fifth-grade education. He came from a home run by a single mother who wanted him to do well, but, Paglin shows in in-your-face interviews, constantly put him down. Stewart had problems: He was mouthy, his attention wandered, and he had issues with authority, glad handing one teacher, being cheeky to another. He also had his grandma on his side.

While the film focuses on actions within the school spanning fights, storytelling and test-taking, it also walks the streets and visits the homes where the battle between parental aspirations and academic discipline plays out, the kids too often stuck in the middle. The school is demanding: 10-hour school days, suits and ties, prized bathroom breaks, lots of homework. As Principal Marshall Emerson says, the hardest thing is aligning parental expectations with the school’s academic demands. The parents want their underachieving kids fixed but blast the school when it makes those kids work hard.

In a May 2 interview at Phoenix Coffee in Cleveland Heights, Paglin said the project began when E-Prep founder John Zitzner approached her, suggesting she document the launch of the school. He “was embarking on this kind of grand project and I think he just liked the idea of having a documentary from the first day,” Paglin said.

Paglin produced “The Nightowls of Coventry” in 2004, and her production of 2006, “No Umbrella: Election Day in the City,” a short about irregularities in Cuyahoga County voting in the presidential election of 2004, aired on Cinemax, so she “had a reputation.”

Making this documentary about culture shock – she also served as cinematographer – “was never a job,” Paglin said. “It had to be something I cared about…. at the time it was such a radical approach to education that they were pursuing. There were no excuses, no B.S., and having really high expectations of the kids and even the parents, and then considering the environment the kids are coming from, where there seemed to be few expectations, I knew this would be a huge change.”

While Zitzner gave his blessing, winning the trust of Emerson and the students took time, but they eventually came around, Paglin said.

“The kids just got so used to me in there, it was more like I was a janitor, and when I wasn’t there, they’d ask where I’d been,” Paglin said. She became “kind of a confidante” to both teachers and students.

“You need to be there when things aren’t going well; that’s when people really don’t want you around, and that’s what makes it difficult,” Paglin said. “Unfortunately, you need the bad as well as the good, and that makes the good things more meaningful when they do happen.”

Encores of “Facing Forward” are scheduled for May 15, 17, 18 and 19, culminating in a special called “Ideas: The Dropout Dilemma,” airing simultaneously on WVIZ/PBS and 90.3 WCPN ideastream at 9 p.m. May 19. For more information on the documentary, visit

WHAT: ‘Facing Forward: A Student’s Story’

WHEN: Premieres at 9 p.m. May 13