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a film by James Redford


“Stressed brains can’t learn.”

That was the nugget of neuroscience that Jim Sporleder, principal of a high school riddled with violence, drugs and truancy, took away from an educational conference in 2010. Three years later, the number of fights at Lincoln Alternative High School had gone down by 75% and the graduation rate had increased five-fold. Paper Tigers is the story of how one school made such dramatic progress.

Following six students over the course of a school year, we see Lincoln’s staff try a new approach to discipline: one based on understanding and treatment rather than judgment and suspension. Using a combination of verite and revealing diary cam footage, Paper Tigers is a testament to what the latest developmental science is showing: that just one caring adult can help break the cycle of adversity in a young person’s life.



"Paper Tigers is emotional, but not sappy. The dedication and passion of the teachers and staff at Lincoln shines, and the school’s vibrant personalities are captivating. The film illustrates the ACE concept, but shows students as humans, not statistics.” — Walker Orenstein, Seattle Times

“Paper Tigers is a moving and profoundly important film that offers critical insights into one of the most widespread educational and health challenges in American society. It should be mandatory viewing for teachers and principals across the country, and anyone who works with vulnerable youths.” – David Bornstein, New York Times writer and Co-Founder of The Solutions Journalism Network.


Director's Statement

Storytelling it’s how we make sense of the world. Our desire to create meaning in an often random and complex world resides deep within novelists, playwrights, journalists and screenwriters. To be human is to desire meaning, and storytellers are driven to provide that meaning for themselves and for others.

Documentary filmmakers are no different. We see an issue and say, “People ought to know about this.” We are compelled to share the stories and give a voice to those inspiring individuals working for justice who often go unheard. Documentary filmmaking is an arduous and lengthy process built upon the risky assumption that people need to hear the story. Ask any documentary filmmaker, however, and they will tell you that they know when a story is good: when it demands to be told.

I knew I wanted to make a film about the emerging science of adversity: how high “doses” of stress during childhood get into our bodies, change our brains, and lead to lifelong health and social problems -- everything from domestic violence and substance abuse to heart disease and cancer. Scientists are beginning to understand the roots of these seemingly intractable problems, and many have novel ideas about how to break these cycles. I set out to tell the story of this science, and those with boots on the ground who are putting it into practice like pediatricians, teachers, and social workers.

When I visited Walla Walla and saw Lincoln Alternative High School, though, I knew there was an entire film’s worth of stories in this one location. For this subject matter, the empathy fueled by getting to follow characters over time seemed both fitting and poignant. Especially with teenagers, who are simultaneously so fascinating and frustrating. I met student after student who had experienced enough upheaval in their lives to fill a Charles Dickens novel, and they had the self- destructive and aggressive behavior to show for it. However, they had landed in a school whose staff was enlightened to look past that behavior, love them unconditionally, and help them connect to their true potential. Their stories of resilience and the practices of the teachers at Lincoln are an inspiring model.

Paper Tigers has an upcoming companion film titled Resilience, which delves into the neuroscience research and includes portraits of other practitioners putting that science it into action.

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