2nd Juneteenth film festival features Gloria Merriex documentary

The screening of A Class of Her Own, a documentary about Duval Elementary teacher Gloria Merriex, was held on Saturday.
The screening of "A Class of Her Own," a documentary about Duval Elementary teacher Gloria Merriex, was held on Saturday.
Courtesy of ACPS

The A. Quinn Jones Museum and Cultural Center hosted the second annual Juneteenth Film Festival on Saturday, featuring a documentary about an influential and innovative teacher at Duval Elementary School. 

Gloria Merriex taught for over 30 years at Duval, but only when the school made an “F” on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) did she begin creating new learning techniques involving drums, drill teams and raps. 

The new feature-length documentary, “Class of Her Own”, by Penn State professor Boaz Dvir, was released in April, and screened on Saturday as part of Gainesville’s annual Journey to Juneteenth events. 

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The screening was co-sponsored by Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) and the city of Gainesville, and it included a panel discussion with City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker, who was a former student of Merriex, as well as School Board vice chair and former Duval principal Dr. Leanetta McNealy, and filmmaker Dvir. 

Award-winning producer/director Boaz Dvir screened his documentary on Duval Elementary teacher Gloria Merriex on Saturday.
Courtesy of Boaz Dvir Award-winning producer/director Boaz Dvir screened his documentary on Duval Elementary teacher Gloria Merriex on Saturday.

The event was packed to “standing room only,” according to an ACPS Facebook post, and Dvir said though it has not taken off as quickly as some of his other projects, it is just as impactful and he believes it could change the educational system. 

“It will inspire you, it will move you,” Dvir said in a phone interview. “It will make you laugh, it will make you cry. It might make you get up and dance and sing and clap your hands, and you will walk away with your lesson.” 

Dvir said he does not hit viewers over the head with lessons but prefers instead to “give them the space to make their own conclusions.” He said he has done screenings across the world and heard of people coming away with lessons that never occurred to them. 

Beyond this, Dvir said the film is entertaining and may prompt people to take action to make education stronger in their own communities. 

Donald Pemberton, founding director of the University of Florida Lastinger Center for Learning, had the idea for a documentary about Duval and called Dvir about it over 16 years ago. The school, on the east side of Gainesville in a low socioeconomic area, had risen to become one of the highest-graded in the state. 

Dvir said he immediately leapt on the opportunity, and the school welcomed his presence as a documentary filmmaker. From 2008 to 2009, he filmed in Duval’s classes and interviewed faculty, staff and students. 

What Dvir found while filming for the documentary was that Merriex had introduced a new way of teaching, using rhythms, raps and music to teach things like math and English. The school had earned an “F,” but through methods and curriculum Merriex developed, the school rose to make consistent “A” grades. 

Merriex died in the spring of 2008 at the age of 58, and without her, the school faltered in its improvement. The school grade at the end of the 2008-09 school year dropped from an “A” back to an “F.” 

Dvir said he felt it would not be fair to the school, or to audiences, to release a documentary at that time. But he was taken by the story of Merriex and her methods, so he made a 30-minute documentary about her techniques, to be screened only for teachers. 

It was standing room only at the A. Quinn Jones Museum and Cultural Center for the screening of A Class of Her Own.
Courtesy of ACPS It was standing room only at the A. Quinn Jones Museum and Cultural Center for the screening of “A Class of Her Own.”

That short documentary, “Discovering Gloria,” came out in 2011, and Dvir still travels to show it to teachers. But as he traveled with that film, he received feedback from teachers who said it deserved a wider audience. 

Dvir revisited the project and released “Class of Her Own” in April 2024 on all major streaming platforms, and on DVD. The new film is three times longer than the teacher-screening version. 

Dvir said a wider audience could include policymakers, professors, parents and grandparents, who may see the film and decide it would be better for teachers to have more flexibility in how they educate students. 

“A lot of what we see in education today is cookie cutter, and it really, no pun intended, it just doesn’t cut it for most students, right?” Dvir said. “Because students are not cookie cutter. That’s a quote from the film, from Gloria. Students are not cookie cutter, and therefore they need differentiated supervision, differentiated instruction, and they need a teacher who meets them where they are and does so in an authentic way.” 

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