Class Action: Mendez vs. Westminster

In 1946, nearly a decade before the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education, nine-year old Sylvia Mendez and her family won a class action lawsuit that dismantled the segregated school system in Orange County. Second graders from Jefferson Elementary in Berkeley, California wrote and reenacted the family’s struggle and fight for equality, which ultimately brought an end to the era of segregated education in California.

  • Second Grade Students at Jefferson School
    Writer
  • Lisa Rossi, Second Grade Teacher
    Director
    Persevere: The Wilma Rudolph Story
  • Tony Saxe, Second Grade Parent
    Director
    Persevere: The Wilma Rudolph Story, This is Noise Pop!
  • Second Grade Students at Jefferson School
    Key Cast
  • Tony Saxe
    Editing
    This Is Noise Pop (Documentary) , Monumental: David Brower's Fight for Wild America (Documentary) , See How They Run
  • Project Type:
    Short, Student
  • Runtime:
    16 minutes 5 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    June 10, 2016
  • Production Budget:
    25 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
    English
  • Shooting Format:
    Digital - iphone
  • Film Color:
    Black & White and Color
  • First-time Filmmaker:
    No
  • Student Project:
    Yes
Director Biography - Lisa Rossi, Second Grade Teacher, Tony Saxe, Second Grade Parent

Lisa Rossi is a second grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in Berkeley, California. Lisa received her Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from CSU, Chico, and later her teaching credential and Master’s Degree in Education at San Francisco State University. She was awarded San Francisco State University’s Distinguished Achievement Award for Academic Excellence and the College of Education’s Distinguished Student Award for her master’s thesis.

Lisa’s second grade classroom is always fun and engaging. Her classroom is a community where students work together to help gain perspectives and think critically about concepts and the curriculum, all while laughing, singing and sharing with each other. In 2007, Lisa was awarded Outstanding Teacher of the Year by Prudential Realty’s Education Foundation of Northern California.

Lisa finds creative ways to celebrate the power and struggle of all women and wants to inspire action in the elementary school setting to help more girls realize their full potential. She runs a Girl Power lunch group to educate girls on self-esteem at Jefferson, and has been a Girls On The Run coach for three seasons. She educates strong, powerful and courageous girls, and the boys who admire and respect them.

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Director Statement

What do you do with a group of second graders who are moved and outraged by the historical inequalities of our public education system? Make a movie, of course!

While reading Duncun Tonatiuh’s Separate Is Never Equal aloud, my students were shocked to learn that there had been separate schools for students based on their ethnic background and/or color of their skin. They were angered by the lack of facilities, books, and playground equipment at the “Mexican School” and enraged that the “White School” had the best teachers, the cleanest facilities, and the newest books. They were moved by the perseverance of the Mendez Family and their willingness to lose EVERYTHING in the name of educational equality. They wanted to tell the Mendez’s story.

As a class we broke down the story and time-lined out the major events. We wrote summaries of events to add to the timeline. We met with Tony Saxe (a film editor who was also a parent of a student in the class) to learn about storyboards and decide what information came to the movie and what was left out. The students set their roles, wrote narrative, planned out and wrote dialogue, and acted in all scenes. They learned how green screens work, and they found the grit it took to reshoot some scenes 15 times! Throughout the process, Tony showed the kids the different aspects of editing – cutting scenes, adding backgrounds, music, and sound effects.

The students also learned about the United States Courts and how the system works. In early June, my class visited the EXACT ROOM where the Mendez v. Westminster appeal case took place at the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. They also got to meet with the youngest appellate judge sitting on the courts.

The Mendez case has started to receive some attention. Documentaries have been made, a commemorative stamp was issued, and a high school in LA was named after the Mendez parents. In 2011, daughter Sylvia Mendez received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. My hope is that our movie can be shown so that more people can learn about this important yet little known event in history. I also hope that the general public can bear witness to the valuable voices of 20 second graders from Jefferson Elementary School who see themselves reflected in the Mendez story, and who want to make meaningful contributions to their community and our country.