Petersburg Rising

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It’s not every day that you’re offered an opportunity to help an entire city recover from economic crisis by investing in its children. Yet that’s exactly what happened to me. You too can be a part of this extraordinary story.

My life has been spent in helping the “underdog” because that was once me living in a group home in Queens, New York. When my longtime friend and colleague told me he was leaving one of the most successful, wealthy and largest school districts in the state of Virginia to run the poorest and lowest performing one a few miles away, I immediately asked: “How can I help?”

Dr. Marcus Newsome replied that he had no money to offer, but that people in Petersburg, VA had come to believe, and thereby recreate, the negative news told about them. If we could change the narrative, we could change the schools, and if we could change the schools, we could change the city. 

By divine intervention, I was in a room with a great PBS Documentarian, Sam Pollard, who became interested in this common American Story of economic boom to bust. That’s because this time there was an unusual twist:  an extraordinary group of leaders entered the picture to invest in the children and their education.

This is the story of Petersburg Rising, seen through the eyes of 5 students we followed for a year. This is a chance to change the trajectory of their lives, and that of future generations of an entire city. By doing this, we can also change other cities, states and regions. Now we could use your help!  

Meet the Team!

Sam Pollard is a primetime Emmy award-winning producer, writer and director with over 30 years experience. Sam’s career as a producer started in 1989 when he produced the documentary series “Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crosswords”, for one of which he received an Emmy. Later he co-produced Henry Hampton’s last documentary series “I’ll Make Me a World: Stories of African-American Artists and Community”, for which he received The George Peabody Award. In addition, he co-produced a couple of documentary productions for the small and big screen, one of which received an Emmy (Spike Lee Presents Mike Tyson) and another one was nominated for an Academy Award (Four Little Girls). There is no doubt that Mr. Pollard has spent his life working on black people’s progress and showcase through documentaries and film in general. 

Alice Elliott is a successful writer, director, producer, cinematographer and an adjuct professor at the NYU School of Continuing Education - she is a strong advocate for the disabled and minorities, along with a founding member of New Day Films (an educational film distribution cooperative) 

Alice Elliott has over 20 years experience in acting, participating in two feature movies and many commercials. “The Collector of Bedford Street” (1991) was her first debut as a director and producer. Since then, she has won numerous awards and was nominated for an Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject. 

Alan Blankstein is an award-winning author and education leader who served for 25 years as President and Founder of the HOPE Foundation, whose honorary chair is Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu. A former “high-risk” youth, Blankstein began his career in education as a music teacher. He worked for Phi Delta Kappa, March of Dimes, and Solution Tree, which he founded in 1987 and directed for 12 years while launching Professional Learning Communities beginning in the late 1980s. 

Blankstein is the author of the best-selling book Failure Is Not an Option®: Six Principles That Guide Student Achievement in High-Performing Schools, which received the Book of the Year award from Learning Forward. He is senior editor, lead contributor, or author of 18 books, including Excellence Through Equity with Pedro Noguera (2016). He has also authored some 20 articles in publications, including Education Week, Educational Leadership, The Principal, and Executive Educator. 

Blankstein has provided keynote presentations and workshops for virtually every major U.S. education organization, and throughout the United Kingdom, Africa, and the Middle East. He has served on the Harvard International Principals Centers advisory board and the Jewish Child Care Agency, where he once was a youth in residence.

2019 Oliver White Hill Social Justice Short Film Competition -- 1st Place

Winner of the Oliver White Hill 2019 Short Film Festival on Social Justice Competition

See the 3 minute version of our film in the Gallery.


This a common American Story of economic boom-to-bust, with an unusual twist: an extraordinary group of leaders entered the picture to turn the tide by investing in children and their education. Petersburg was to be their model for the state, and perhaps the nation. Yet challenges remain enormous.

For more than a decade, Petersburg schools struggled, failed, and even lacked basic accreditation. Students dropped out in large numbers and faced tough times at home in one of the poorest communities in the state. Their future was bleak. Generations of children were lost.

When the superintendent of the neighboring district announced his retirement from a large, wealthy, successful district to act on his second doctorate in divinity, he was asked if he would consider instead running the poorest and lowest performing district in the state. This is that story, told through the struggles… and triumphs of 5 students we followed for a year.

We are a not-for-profit 501c3 organization so all donations are tax deductible!