A little girl Malia Fitzpatrick (played by Emily Alyn Lind) in grammar school tries with great difficulty to read from the blackboard in class. The other kids are not paying attention, playing video games, talking or sleeping. The next morning, a woman Jamie Fitzpatrick (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) busily hurries to get ready in the morning waking her daughter Malia to rush her off to school. Her mother takes her to school. She observes the classrooms are being mishandled by the teachers who don't seem to care at all and are just going through the motions. Jamie works at a used-car sales company and barely is able to make ends meet.
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Two of the teachers Nona Alberts (played by Viola Davis) and Breena Harper (played by Rosie Perez) actually care about the kids but feel powerless to do much about it. They know that the worst teachers cannot be fired and they simply pass the illiterate students on to the next year to get rid of them. Jamie tries to get her daughter back into her old school but cannot afford to pay the tuition. So she tries to get her daughter in the Rosa Parks charter school which has a lottery to allow 40 students to attend when hundreds of their parents want their kids to go there. There are only 3 slots per grade. Jamie's little girl, Malia, does not get in. One of the teachers from Malia's school, Nona, wants her son to go to Rosa Parks as well but she arrives too late to get her son in the lottery draw.
Jamie finds out about the "Fail Safe" law that allows bad public schools to be turned around with the help of the teachers but it has never been applied in actuality. She needs an ally, a teacher and she befriends Nona. They make a plan to start a new school together. Nona is inspired by the memories of her mother who was recognized as a great teacher. They go to the school board and learn that they must get 50% of both the teachers and the parents of the students to sign a petition, then they must make a 400 page document, and then go before the school board for a hearing. The bureaucracy is so intimidating. They find out the process may take 3 to 5 years to achieve but they refuse to wait that long.
Jamie starts to get the parents to sign the petition. She falls in love with Michael Perry (played by Oscar Isaac) who is another teacher and he agrees to help. Jamie and Nona make plans. Jamie learns that her friend Nona has marital problems and that her son is doing poorly in school as well. Jamie's enthusiasm is so inspirational that they get the parents involved. But at school the teachers are not supportive. Nona apologizes to the teachers and invites them to participate by coming to a meeting. There is a lot of resistance amongst the teachers because of the influence of the teacher's union. They all fight and debate each other at the meeting. After a passionate speech Nona gets enough teachers to sign on to the petition. Next they take on the school board.
A union woman tries to bribe Jamie by offering a scholarship to a very nice school for her daughter. Jamie declines. Nona gets fired from the school unfairly. Jamie's daughter is treated unfairly by her teacher at school. In spite of all the opposition, they overcome it, and get a hearing before the school board. The teacher's union which opposes the new school digs up Nona' history from the past that shows that Nona injured her son while driving drunk to use this information to discredit her. This does not work Instead her son goes with her to the hearing to stand by her side. The hearing is filled with half green for changing the school and half orange for the union. The final vote on approval of the new school comes down to a single vote.
Best part of story, including ending:
This film is inspiring because two very strong women make up their minds to change the system and nothing can stop them.
Best scene in story:
It is very touching when Nona finds a box of old things, in the closet of her home, about her mother's career as a teacher and this gives her the courage to continue.
Opinion about the main character:
Jamie does not see the obstacles. She focuses on the need, and the goal of helping her daughter get a good education and is not swayed at all by the opposition.