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Critical Exposure: students focus on reforming schools

The Critical Exposure program lets student photographers document what is wrong – and right – about their schools.

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“It’s amazing to watch students walk into a nice art gallery, usually for the first time in their lives, and see their photographs blown up and framed and hanging on a wall, and have a whole bunch of strangers standing around, looking at their work, talking about their work,” Levner said. “Equally or more important is that those photos are always accompanied by writing, captions, where the students are telling their stories. For a lot of students, seeing people stand there and read their words is really powerful.”

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Students have learned, too, that their photos can reach more than just strangers in an art gallery. Levner said that, as part of Critical Exposure’s work with other organizations to increase funding for Maryland public schools’ facilities, students came to the state capitol in Annapolis and whisked away state legislators to share their photos and stories. One legislator was so taken by the photos that he distributed copies to fellow lawmakers. The legislator, according to Levner, said that the photos helped in passing a bill that increased funding for the schools.

And in D.C., Critical Exposure was part of a successful campaign that secured $200 million in annual funding to modernize public schools.

Still, the organization, like many nonprofits, has had challenges with its own funding. Its revenue comes from a combination of grants, individual donors, and fee-for-service programs. Critical Exposure, Levner added, has been extremely fortunate to benefit from the subsidized labor of dedicated AmeriCorps VISTAs.

But Levner said the organization is still working to develop what he considers a sustainable funding model.

“Fundraising has been a combination of tireless searching for funds and trying to be as creative as we can about different ways to generate revenue,” he said.

It’s easy to become fixated on everything that’s wrong with public schools. Newspapers titillate us with stories of urban blight and dreams deferred, and countless films show us scenes of savage inner-city students running amok – that is, until a daring hero or heroine, in one miraculous swoop, turns the school around.

Certainly there are problems with our public schools, Levner admitted. But it’s important that programs like Critical Exposure also expose what’s good and hopeful about schools. To the surprises of many people, students are very interested in – not indifferent to – having good school experiences, he said.

Moreover, students need to feel as though the schools are worth fighting for, he said.

“It’s really hard to get people to invest in something that they think is completely a wreck, that there is no good in,” he said. “We want to make sure that we’re not giving people the impression that public schools are a failure and we need to walk away from them."

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