They say first impressions are lasting. And Memphis documentary filmmaker Willy Bearden has vivid memories of the first time he ever visited Perea Preschool with Memphis musician John Kilzer. The two men were working together on a project about the relationship of art and religion when Kilzer asked Bearden if he'd be interested in making a film about Perea, an experiment in early childhood education created by the Church Health Center in 1999.
"That's exactly what I'm about," Bearden answered. "I want to show people all the good things happening in Memphis." His concise, 30-minute documentary, Perea: A Bright Spot, collects stories that illustrate the positive impact this unconventional preschool is having on students and parents in Memphis' economically disadvantaged Klondike neighborhood. It starts airing on WKNO Channel 10 Thursday, May 14th.
"Everybody looked so happy and so engaged," Bearden says, recalling his first visit to Perea. "There were 120 students, all 3 year olds and 4 year olds. And there were parents there, too. And the whole place just had this palpable vibe. Everybody was on the same page and getting along. You walk in and think, 'Something is really going on here, and I want to find out what it is.'"
Perea preschool only accepts students whose parents agree to become active participants in the educational process.
"[Church Health Center CEO] Scott Morris told me that Perea requires a lot [from its] parents," Bearden explains. "You've got to come in a couple of times a month and read to the kids. What does this do for the parents? Well, maybe they don't read well and maybe they're not comfortable with that. So what do they do? They practice up on their reading. Then the kids see parents taking part in the classroom and it has this ripple effect that is just incredible," Bearden says.