Like a lot of young African-American males living in urban areas, Anthony, a fifth grader living in Washington D.C., comes from an unstable home. Having never known his mother, he was raised by his father until his death from a drug overdose.
The nationally controversial documentary “Waiting for Superman” follows Anthony and his grandmother as they struggle to get Anthony into an all boys’ boarding school. This school is viewed by Anthony’s grandmother as her grandson’s ticket out of a cycle of crime, drugs and violence.
Following a private screening of the film at South Side Works Cinemas on Dec. 2, local “Superman” William Strickland, president and CEO of Manchester Bidwell Corporation and The National Center for Arts & Technology who had a role in the film, assembled a panel of Pittsburgh education reformers and other national figures that also had ties with the film.
“What we hoped the film would do is provide a springboard for discussion,” said Jeff Skoll, founder and chairman, Participant Media and board member of The National Center for Arts and Technology. “The film was intended to show that there is something very wrong with the system and there is something we can do.”
The film examines the American public education system, highlighting strengths in the system, particularly charter schools, and revealing harsh realities. The charter schools being magnified boast above average achievement and graduation rates in low-income urban neighborhoods, with the exception of a school in a suburban area.
However, the number of applicants to these charter schools far outweigh the spots available. The five children chronicled in the film are at the mercy of a lottery system that randomly selects students for admittance. In the film’s heartbreaking conclusion, Anthony is the only one who is granted access to his school of choice, leaving the four other children and their families wondering where to turn.
Skoll, the film’s executive producer, addressed allegations by critics that the film carries an anti-teacher message. For instance, the film claims that replacing the bottom percentage of teachers with teachers of only average quality could raise America to a level of academic achievement on par with Finland, which is among the highest countries in the world. It also alludes to the superiority of charter schools that have the freedom to operate without influence from teachers unions.
“If you’re a long term teacher in the system, the status quo is a safe place,” Skoll said. “The unions are part of the problem, but they’re not the whole problem. As we’ve learned along the way, it’s a great teacher that makes a difference.”
Though Skoll denied audience comments that the film appeared to be against teachers and teachers unions, the importance of teacher effectiveness dominated the panel discussion.
“If you don’t have great teachers you don’t have a great school,” said Eric Adler, co-founder and managing director of The SEED Foundation of Washington, D.C. “More than anything, we want teachers who have ambition for their kids.”
This year the Pittsburgh Public School District signed a five-year contract with the local teachers union. It includes performance pay provisions for teachers and administrators, a policy opposed by many unions, as demonstrated by the film.
“I think we’re making some progress in working with our teachers not against our teachers,” said William Isler, Pittsburgh School Board representative for District 6. “You’ve got to have them at the table all the time. They can’t be separate from the table. They’ve got to be part of the discussion.”
Strickland and Skoll work together through the National Center for Arts and Technology, which is working to replicate Pittsburgh’s Manchester Bidwell Center in other cities across the country. To date, similar sites have been opened in San Francisco, Calif., Cincinnati and Grand Rapids, Mich.
“At our center we are very deliberate about our kids having a say in the curriculum. This is collaboration. Kids are waiting and hoping for an opportunity to weigh in on this issue,” Strickland said. “There’s no one who can tell me any of these kids should be left behind. They are part of the solution.”
Skoll encouraged the audience to get involved by sending a text message granting them a $15 gift card to donate to a project of their choice. The documentary’s website also provides viewers with information on how they can get involved in school reform and helping disadvantaged students.
(For more information, visit www.waitingforsuperman.com/action/.)