After the success of her documentary "Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary," reported in Life & Style in May, schoolteacher Laura Angelica Simon figured she could have done one of three things: remain an educator, run for local office or make another movie.
At school's end this summer, Simon left her second grade teaching job to make movies, including an upcoming project for HBO and another documentary called "The New Immigrants" for producers Peter Gilbert and Steve James, who directed and produced the acclaimed "Hoop Dreams." By next summer, Simon hopes to begin work on an interracial love story called "black boy / brown girl."
But it was her first film, about the emotional toll Proposition 187 had on her students, that won this year's Freedom of Expression prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It later aired on PBS and moved Hillary Rodham Clinton to send a letter to Simon. Currently, "Fear and Learning" is getting Oscar nomination buzz in the long-form documentary category.
Before she left Hoover, she helped start the Children's Basic Needs Fund at the school and with her film raised more than $20,000 for food, clothing and emergency medical care for the kids.
"I got hate letters, hate calls. My peers treated me differently," after they viewed the movie, she says. "I knew if I had to go on teaching, I couldn't do it at Hoover. Maybe somewhere else, but there wasn't anywhere else to go. These days, when I walk into a room with educators, I trigger discussion and debate."
All because she gave kids a chance to speak their minds about the initiative that would have denied them a public education. "The story of immigrant children is a sad story, and I'll happily be the poster child for these children," says Simon, whose family legally immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 6. "I don't like it when people are robbed of their dignity, and children are people, too."