By Polly Summar
Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer

GALLINA— This tiny town nestled among the giant red cliffs west of Georgia O’Keeffe country was facing the same issues so many rural communities face: How do you keep the kids interested in their communities, motivated to continue their education but possibly returning some day, when faced with scarce job opportunities?

The answer they chose— to make a film about the community— might seem puzzling at first. But it’s the process of making the film that helps achieve the goal.

In a program combining oral history, computer skills, literacy and filmmaking, “the students take on leadership roles,” said Frank Chacon, a history and math teacher at Coronado Chacon, a history and math teacher at Coronado Middle and High Schools and an ’87 graduate of the same school system. “It’s a student-based approach to learning that goes back to the Foxfire approach in rural Georgia.”

In laymen’s terms, as the 15 young people explore the issues of their community, interviewing businesspeople, family and elders for the film, their appreciation for their part of the world increases and their interest in being part of the local solution widens.

But accomplishing all that took a unique combination of help from the New Mexico Higher Education Department, via the federal GEAR UP program (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), and the rural education division of the state Public Education Department, in conjunction with the nonprofit Silver Bullet Productions headed by Pamela Pierce, a past executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Charter Schools.

“In 2002, one of the workshops we (the coalition) had was for Native American educators,” said Pierce, who spent much of her educational career focusing on learning styles. “A lot of them felt they would like a charter school on their tribal land. When they discussed the reasons, it was the issue of— they were losing their kids. The kids weren’t engaged in the communities, didn’t have respect for the elders, they were dropping out, they were bored and they were acting out.

“Those issues are pretty prevalent in a lot of communities— in rural and Native American communities in New Mexico,” Pierce said.

Pierce, who has taught everything from kindergarten to law school, said she agonized over the problem and finally realized that making a film could be the solution. “You’ve changed the whole dynamics of the community and how they value education. Film motivates and gives the student a skill they can use outside of high school and then there’s a reason to stay in school.”

And, she admitted, “Kids know film is cool.” In 2004, Pierce left her position with the coalition with plans to start a bare-bones nonprofit production company. She receives no salary and has to raise funds for each project. “We have a lot of $25 contributions from people who just believe in us,” said Pierce.

The company’s sole mission is to advance educational excellence in the state’s rural and tribal communities.

Some eight films produced so far have ranged from one about the economic revitalization of Tatum, in the southeast corner of the state, to one about Zia Pueblo and the history of its zia symbol. The films are used for educational purposes and to inspire other communities.

What’s unique about the Gallina project is that it will follow five seventh-graders from now through their graduation from high school, as part of GEAR UP, a U.S. Department of Education-funded grant that’s administered through the New Mexico Higher Education Department.

“We have 33 middle schools that are receiving money through GEAR UP,” said Rebecca Belletto, state coordinator for the program, based on certain family income levels and No Child Left Behind guidelines. “So we’ll have a longitudinal look at how these students are progressing.

“Gallina is the only one working with Silver Bullet,” said Belletto, “but other schools are interested in doing a film project.”

In Gallina, however, it’s not just the presence of program money and a filmmaking crew that makes the project work. History teacher Chacon, computer teacher Crystal Gallegos and counselor and retired history teacher Dan Delgado teamed together to create an oral history/computer/literacy summer program that goes along with the filmmaking.

The students meet three days a week from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. this month and in August. They are already keeping daily blogs that will have an online presence some time this summer and are creating a website, too.

And each student is taking on an aspect of community life in Gallina, from religion and traditions to hunting and fishing, as they gather oral history interviews for their student films.

The professional film will be finished by the end of August, and will be shown to the Gallina community in September at the school.

“Our community’s key issues are education, the struggle for water rights and recognizing our land grants,” said Chacon. “Through exploring these, maybe we can address economic development. How do we get this community revitalized?”

In trying to encourage leadership among the students, the teachers have created a mentorship program. Five high school students are mentoring the five seventh-grade students who then mentor five incoming seventh-graders.

The Gallina students say they know they need the kind of continuing support that GEAR UP offers. “It will help me, encourage you to finish high school and help you understand how to get to college and not have things stand in the way,” said Erin Cordova, 13.

To keep that optimism on the upswing and the students’ skills improving, Pierce said Silver Bullet will return every summer to work with the kids.

Her company is also donating film equipment to leave with the students so they can work on their own films. The students already have some computer and camera equipment for the project through other grant money.

Pierce and her crew, cameraman David Aubrey of Lightningwood Pictures and sound mixer James Becker, who both live in Santa Fe, spent part of their time this past week with the students, instructing them in all aspects of making a film, from writing and theme development to actually shooting the footage.

On Wednesday afternoon, the moment the students had been waiting for finally arrived: They were going to get their hands on a camera.

There was no hesitation. Small groups of students eagerly checked out the equipment, their hands running over the different camera functions.

The cooperation among the students was striking, and Chacon commented on it. The “acting out” problems faced in other communities are not really a problem in the Gallina school, he said.

“We’re related to a lot of the kids. Crystal and Dan and I, we know all these kids’ families. We went to school with them or their aunts and uncles, or we see their grandparents at church.

“The kids have a lot of respect for their grandparents,” said Chacon,“so if there ever are any problems … maybe I run into their grandma after church.”