SCHOOL REFORMER: Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada believes under-resourced communities, where the odds are stacked against kids, must be changed to give their young people the same shot at success as kids in more privileged communities. (Photo: Tom Fitzsimmons/Center for Public Leadership/Wikipedia)
“There are many places in our nation that we have allowed to become areas of hopelessness,” said educator and activist Geoffrey Canada last month at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit. “Despair rules and young people who grow up there have no way of knowing right from wrong.”
Canada, the founder and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, told Willow Creek ministry leader Nancy Beach that youth become “contaminated” with negative values and principles that must be counteracted. It’s a message he’s been proclaiming in New York and now around the nation for more than twenty years.
Perhaps you’ve seen Canada discussing education on television. He was prominently featured in the controversial 2010 documentaryWaiting for Superman, which took a hard look at the tenuous condition of American public education. These days when any serious conversation about public schools turns toward the topic of real solutions, it’s difficult not to reference Canada’s name and work.
In inner cities where overcoming the odds is the only way for children to achieve success, Canada contends that the odds need to be changed. This conviction, coupled with a waiting list for the after-school and summer youth programs Canada directed through the mid-1990s, convinced him to scrap a model social services organization in favor of what TheNew York Times Magazinecalls “one of the biggest social experiments of our time.”
As we begin a new school year, and our nation’s system of public education continues to falter, it’s worth taking a look at Geoffrey Canada’s efforts as a case study on what might be possible if we’re willing to work hard, think innovatively, and put our children first.
The Great Experiment
Founded in 1997 as a corporate reorganization of the Harlem-based Rheedlen Centers, which ran various after-school, violence-prevention, and summer youth programs for 500 children with a $3 million annual budget, Harlem Children’s Zone has embraced a mission to prove that poor children, especially poor black children, can succeed in big numbers. Success means good reading scores, grades, and graduation rates for average students, not just the smartest or most motivated or the ones with involved parents.
The catalyst for Canada’s changed approach was a perpetual waiting list at Rheedlen. Canada became dissatisfied that no matter how many children his centers served, their services merely treated symptoms of far deeper social ills for hundreds of children while thousands went unattended every day.
He was also frustrated with an “apartheid” type of school district where kids living below 96th Street were super achievers and kids above 96th Street chronically underperformed. Grappling with the disparity, he wondered whether it’s even possible to transform the system so that success might become the norm for Harlem too.
INVESTING IN LIVES: Canada (left) works with students in a Harlem Children’s Zone classroom. “We can’t afford to lose another generation,” he says.
Fueled by the belief that individual children will do better if the children around them are doing better, Canada set out to prove that success can indeed become normalized. Unapologetically, HCZ is a social experiment designed to amass evidence that demonstrates how to equalize the playing field so that poor children perform on the same level as middle-class children. Canada foresees a day when, “This isn’t an abstract conversation anymore. If you want poor children to do as well as middle-class children,” to become “typical Americans” who can compete for jobs, “we now know how to do it.”
According to the Times Magazine, “If [Canada is] right, the services he will provide will cost about $1,400 a year per student, on top of existing public-school funds. The country will finally know what the real price tag is for poor children to succeed.”
In 2005, U.S. News & World Report described Canada as having “the street walk and Harvard talk.” That combination generates enough credibility to be given a legitimate shot at making his experiment work.
Holistic Programming, Tightly Networked
Geoffrey Canada’s political philosophy is both liberal and conservative, meaning he believes the economy systematically disfavors poor people no matter how hard they work, but he also believes poor parents need to raise their children better. His solution is a holistic approach that invests in traditional services such as public schools, day care, and after-school programs to remedy structural inequities, while also teaching parenting and life skills to enhance personal responsibility.
None of the Zone’s programs, by themselves, is unique. What is unique is how they create an interlocking web of services designed to nurture poor children in a particular neighborhood from birth through college. The Cleveland Plain Dealer describes HCZ’s distinctive this way: “The Zone is a network of tightly connected initiatives. … What sets them apart is the unifying vision Canada has imposed, creating a single, womb-through-college cocoon for thousands of poor kids … and fierce determination to achieve measurable outcomes.”
Each individual initiative fits into an expansive strategy that meets different needs differently. There’s no one right, cookie-cutter formulation for what every individual child needs. Instead, HCZ offers a panoply of services, including:
• Harlem Gems, a computer-based, pre-kindergarten program teaching Hooked on Phonics
• Employment and Technology Center
• TRUCE after-school program for teens
• Family Support Center and foster care alternatives
• Baby College co-ed class for pregnant parents
• Promise Academy charter school
All of HCZ’s programs are geographically located within a 100-block area of Central Harlem, a neighborhood characterized by a poverty rate of nearly 50 percent and foster-care placement rates among the highest in New York City. The 10,000 children living within this community Canada describes as “my kids,” and his goal for them is “fairness … just give my kids a fair shot.” Once they have completed college, “they’re as equal as anybody else, and they’ll be able to fend for themselves.”
Harlem Children’s Zone rests its various program initiatives on four pillars.
1. Rebuild the community from within by developing indigenous leaders who already live in the neighborhood. “Mostly we found that to change a block, you had to get between 10 and 20 percent of the people engaged.” Hope spreads and negative elements move elsewhere.
2. Start early and never stop. Provide services from before birth through prenatal parenting classes and continuing through the completion of college. “Our theory is you never let the kids get behind in the first place.”
3. Think and plan big. Overwhelm the negative with positive influences. Make success and hard work normative.
4. Evaluate relentlessly. HCZ holds 1,300 full and part-time employees accountable to predetermined results. “If you took a salary to deliver an outcome and you didn’t deliver the outcome, you can’t stay here in the organization.” All programs have ten-year business plans with goals, targets, and timetables.
Canada asks no less than 15 years from stakeholders to demonstrate that HCZ’s approach actually works, calling quick fixes to entrenched social problems “pipe dreams.” In exchange, he promises a rigorous reporting and evaluation methodology to track progress and identify program weaknesses.
His management style runs the non-profit like a business and treats philanthropists like venture capitalists. The HCZ business plan focuses on business-oriented ideas like “market-penetration targets” and “new information technology applications” and a “performance-tracking system.”
The Zone regards clients as “customers” and outreach as “marketing.” Administrative staffers wear suits; every meeting starts on time; and reports, budgets, and evaluations flow constantly.
HCZ focuses its energies and resources on what it can control — namely excellent supportive services for children — and not issues beyond their control such as adult marriages and underemployment. Then it recruits relentlessly to register its target market — the most “at-risk” youths in the neighborhood — through door knocking, fliers, sign-ups, raffles, prizes, and give-a-ways (even “bribes”); and promises to deliver excellent results. For example, HCZ called its first charter school Promise Academy because, “We are making a promise to all of our parents. If your child is in our school, we will guarantee that child succeeds. There will be no excuses. … If you work with us as parents, we are going to do everything — and I mean everything — to see that your child gets a good education.”
HCZ’s educational philosophy emphasizes both testing and accountability. They work within the existing public school system while simultaneously opting-out by starting two charter schools. HCZ’s charter schools operate a longer school day, from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m., with supplementary after-school programs until 6 p.m.; and their academic years extend into July. HCZ has met resistance from the Teachers Union because, even though charter school teachers get paid more than union teachers, they work longer hours, a full 12 months a year, and without the possibility of tenure.
The Zone supplements its own service offerings by partnering with parents, residents, teachers, and other community stakeholders to create a safe, nurturing environment that extends beyond its programs. By collaborating with churches, parks, local businesses, and schools, HCZ advocates for education reform, economic development, and crime reductions while proactively rebuilding the neighborhood.
The Challenge of Fatherlessness
The issue of fatherlessness is deeply personal for Canada, both as a central subplot in his own “against the odds” story and as a driving factor in the culture the Zone seeks to overcome. Canada tackles the subject specifically in one of his books, Reaching up for Manhood: Transforming the Lives of Boys in America (Beacon Press 1998).
Raised in the South Bronx by a single mom with four children, Canada’s father left when Canada was only 4. His mother supported them through a combination of odd jobs, welfare, and food donations. He found solace, and trouble, in the streets as a teenager — drinking, smoking pot, and resolving conflicts with his fists. But mom’s work ethic rubbed off, as he secured a factory job after school and ultimately earned a scholarship to attend Bowdoin College, where he majored in psychology and sociology. He then went on to earn a master’s in education from Harvard.
Canada speaks with conviction about the need to “father the fatherless” in part due to his own experience, but also because of the degree to which the absence of fathers has ravaged his community. “It is so much more dangerous for boys today because there aren’t any role models around for them. There’s some 15-year-old telling a 12-year-old what it means to be a man, and these children are really growing up under so much stress.”
Compounding matters is a cultural environment that “preaches anarchy.” Despite a rich tradition within the African American community of music that “always tried to lead us to the light … [and] get us through the tough times,” the current generation of hip-hop stars espouse “a message that is leading us to destruction. The message is, ‘Go out and do things that will destroy you, that will get you locked up in jail, that will ruin your life, that will ruin your relationships, that will estrange you from your kids.’ That’s what this music is preaching. And we’ve never had any music like that in our history before. … The street isn’t driving the music anymore. The music is driving the street.”
The two-fold solution, Canada contends, begins by reconnecting young boys to men in meaningful, long-term relationships that he calls, “loving men and not just mentors.” Mentors are needed, “but mentors do not replace a responsible adult who loves you, who disciplines you, who’s there when you’re afraid at night, who’s there to really talk to you about school and work. That’s what young boys need, and we have to figure out a way to get uncles and cousins and other folks re-involved with these young people for long periods of time so these boys have role models on what it means to be a man.”
For kids who lack a father’s love, these “re-involved” adults must “not only give them the good, solid, love, and support they need, but the tough love that says to them that you’re going to be held responsible, but I’m going to help you, I’m going to hold your hand; I’m going to make sure that when you are crying, there’s someone wiping those tears out of your eyes, picking you up and saying you can do it, try again.”
Only then will boys get messages contradicting pop and street culture values about sex, alcohol, tobacco, clothing, sneakers, and other “stuff that means absolutely nothing when we really look at what it means to be a caring, responsible father, a real responsible adult in today’s society.” What really matters are values like working hard, saving money, and investing in education. There are no “quick and easy” shortcuts, just hard work over a long time modeled for boys by grown men who are willing to take them by the hand and live life together.
The second piece of the strategy is teaching boys necessary skills to care and nurture children as fathers. Canada argues that if a dad is uninvolved in a child’s first three months, meaning not directly supporting, interacting, and bonding with the child, then that father is able to leave without feeling like his abandonment of the child is a big deal. But a boy who hasn’t had a fathering role model lacks basic skills for bonding with children. Worse, they have to overcome street culture biases by insisting that poor boys and girls refrain from exploitative sexual relationships, and redefining manhood to include nurturing as well as providing. To this end, HCZ’s Baby College intentionally works with both pregnant mothers and fathers.
Challenges to Replication
VISION CASTING: Canada during his interview at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit in August.
Over the years, many groups and individuals have studied Geoffrey Canada’s work with the intention of duplicating it in their own cities. But Canada identifies three main challenges to replicating the Harlem Children’s Zone model in other communities. The first, and most fundamental, is finding the right leadership. An appropriate leader is someone whom the community and donors are going to hold accountable while giving that person the authority to hold others accountable. “This won’t work with a collaborative of equal partners.”
Second, groups and individuals must have the discipline and resolve to stay true to the four pillars, including: empowering indigenous leadership to own the transformation process; embracing large and scalable strategies; adopting a long-term, comprehensive, birth through college service commitment; and evaluating and improving performance constantly.
Finally, group leaders must mobilize and sustain the commitment of staff, volunteers, community stakeholders, funders, and residents.
Staying the Course
Back at Willow Creek, Nancy Beach engaged Canada in a wide-ranging conversation on faith and leadership that offers additional insight into his way of thinking and the things that have made him successful.
“I grew up in the ’60s and lost faith in the church because the church wasn’t making a difference in the world around me,” he said. But his grandmother taught him a profound lesson. “She told me, ‘It’s easy to have faith when everything is going great, but the real test of faith is when you’re faced with something where only your faith will keep you believing in God.’”
It’s evident that Canada has taken his grandmother’s words to heart as he goes about the work of transforming education in America. “I’ve never lost this sense that we can test it, but in the end if you have faith, it will pull you through anything.”
+ Harlem Children’s Zone website: www.hcz.org
+ Sam Fulwood III, Bob Paynter and Sandra Livingston, “Central Harlem program combines leadership, commitment to rebuild a community,” Cleveland Plain Dealer (Dec. 13, 2007)
+ Chester Higgins, Jr., “Vision,” New York Times (June 7, 2006)
+ Anderson Cooper, “Stop Snitching,” 60 Minutes (April 22, 2007)
+ Deborah A. Pines, “America’s Best Leaders: Thriving in the Zone,” US News & World Report (Oct. 31, 2005)
+ Paul Tough, “The Harlem Project,” New York Times Magazine (June 20, 2004)
+ Transcript, “Moving Toward Manhood,” The News Hour with Jim Lehrer (Jan. 20, 1998)
+ Felicia Lee, “Being a Man and a Father Is Being There,” New York Times (June 18, 1995)
I am the product of the American public school system. There was only one high school option in the city where I was raised; I assimilated to this school where approximately 96 percent of the student population was African American. Like so many others, I had big dreams, so I did the best that I could for the possibility of exploring opportunities outside my small town. Thanks to the love, support, education, and training that I received from teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators in that school, I was able to walk across the graduation stage and shake the hand of former Vice President Dick Cheney as I received my bachelor’s degree from the United States Naval Academy in 2002.
Less than ten years later, I find myself perplexed at the lack of preparation of so many students graduating from the public school system, if they graduate from high school at all. The 2010 Waiting for Superman documentary revealed that there are over 2,000 high school “dropout factories” in the United States. These are failing schools in failing neighborhoods where students do not have the caring guidance counselors, mentors, or teachers that I had while growing up. These kids do not have choices, so their dreams die, and as far as they are concerned, all of their life’s hope dies with them.
My brother attended schools where the cafeteria ran out of salad before his lunch hour, or maybe the leaves on the remaining salad were brown. I have seen first hand the old, worn textbooks with missing pages. I have tutored middle and high school students that were making As and Bs in the public school system, yet could not read, write, or walk you through the steps of a basic algebra problem.
What happens to all of these children? They sometimes end up in prison or on the streets. And many rich and middle-class (or what used to be middle-class) Americans sit idly by as we have victimized these children and forced them to fail for no other reason than being born into the wrong womb in the wrong neighborhood where they attend the worst schools. They are not prepared to embrace the opportunities that are now failing even some of the most educated and hardworking Americans.
It is comfortable to pretend as if this tragedy is not going on because it is not happening in your neighborhood, but I ask this question: “What about the least of those among us?” We are raising an illiterate generation; what does that mean for the church?
It means that young people are not being taught to know God intimately and grow in their relationship with Him. After all, mature Christians frequently point to the Bible for revelations of our faith. We point to the Bible for those who desire to know God. The Bible is a book that consists of various genres of literature: narratives, poetry, similes and metaphors, allegory, and other types of figurative language that are not all accurately interpreted in the same manner.
Instead of confronting this challenge, we set the standards lower. In the same manner that the public school system is passing students through school, American Christians are giving the silent nod in support with sound-bite theology for our young people — give them a devotional, show a video, invent a quick phone app, after all their attention span is not that long (so there are no expectations for them to sit and learn through the oral traditions of old). Our young people need to be educated and they need to know the Bible.
When addressing issues of abstinence, life’s purpose, failing expectations, homosexuality, developing Christian character and the like, Bible literacy is more important than ever for our young people. Here’s the bottom line: it is our responsibility to teach our youth, to come alongside them, and help them see the importance of getting a good education. It is also our responsibility to paint the big picture for them about how a solid academic foundation can lead to God’s greater good for their lives.
I believe that the failing educational system is one of the greatest domestic justice issues of today’s American church. God requires us to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him. We are to care about the same things that He cares about and the last time I checked, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”
I wonder what would happen in this country if the church rose to lead the charge to provide educational options. What would happen if churches spent money to build and resource more schools to support free Christian education instead of building bigger sanctuaries for themselves? Or what would happen if those same churches with resources bought buses to bring students to their churches and financially support a tutoring ministry for the children who need it?
What would happen if the homeschool moms decided to also homeschool a child who lives across the tracks or across the bridge? If they had the same concern for their neighbor’s children as they do for their own?
What would happen if Christian men made this injustice a priority? Or if housewives, stay-at-home moms, singles and widows, unemployed and part-time workers, and retirees committed their time and resources to tutoring youth in the neighborhoods where the schools are failing? There is more than enough work for all of us to do.
I wonder if the church stood up, would we continue to see a lost generation of children whose lives of struggle are sure to end in poverty, prostitution, jail, unhealthy relationships, or homelessness? I wonder if any of this matters to the church.
Inconvenient Truth-Teller: Waiting for ‘Superman’ director/activist Davis Guggenheim
Director Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for ‘Superman’ has set off fiery debates and earned him the scorn of teacher groups across America. But it’s all right with him, if the film leads to the nation getting more serious about saving its public schools.
Chances are you’ve heard about Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for ‘Superman,’ which opened nationwide in theaters last weekend and has already grossed $1.6 million at the box office (a significant amount for a documentary). Guggenheim’s film has challenged Americans to stand up for children and fix the country’s broken education system. As with his previous film, the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for ‘Superman’ has been the subject of plenty of controversy and debate, and has faced strong opposition (teacher unions) as well as strong support (Oprah!). Guggenheim recently sat down with UrbanFaith to discuss the film and how the church community can get involved in saving our schools.
URBAN FAITH: Since making this film, have you noticed any faith-based initiatives that are getting involved with this issue?
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: Yeah, the amazing thing about the movie is it speaks to everyone, no matter what his or her faith or political leanings. And the people who see the movie just fall in love with the kids and are inspired by the parents, because they see that every kid deserves a great education. I think faith-based groups see the moral consequences of our schools and that it’s a moral obligation to give every kid a great education.
How do you think the faith community can get more involved in the public education issue?
A lot of the big decisions happen behind closed doors at a negotiating table — the superintendent, a mayor, school board, union members. The seat that is often not filled is the person who’s fighting for the kids. What Michelle Rhee [chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system in Washington, D.C., who recently announced her resignation] says in the movie is that the system works for the adults — for harmony amongst adults. The people who get neglected are the kids. I think the power to help the kids can come from faith-based groups — people who can organize and gather and say this is important for our community; the heart of our community is a great school. With that collective power, they can really put a lot of muscle toward making decisions at that table to give every kid a great education.
What are your thoughts on the negative response from certain teacher groups and unions?
I think some of the dialogue has gotten a little heated. A lot of that comes from people who haven’t seen the movie or don’t want you to see the movie. When people see the movie, they see that at its heart are these kids who just want a great school. Even though there’s a lot of politics in the movie, the message is really apolitical. It asks the simple question: Why can’t we give every kid a great education? And the kids in my movie don’t care what the school is called, and they don’t care how it gets fixed or who’s to blame. They just want a great school.
Has the response from teachers who have seen the film been positive?
I think the majority of teachers get it. There are so many great teachers out there who are slugging it out every day, and they are already fighting for kids. A lot of things I bring up in the movie, they deal with every single day — the vast bureaucracies, the very strict rules. The majority of teachers welcome the message of the movie.
What challenges did you face while putting this documentary together?
I think the biggest challenge of making this movie has been to get people to believe again — that it’s possible. That sounds really simple, but in many of these neglected neighborhoods there’s this sense of “this is what you get” and “it’s been this way for a long time,” and that maybe it can’t be done. What I think is so inspiring about the message of the movie is that I’m showing — through the stories of Geoffrey Canada [president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone], the kids’ schools, and these great, inspired reformers — that it actually can be done if we have the political will and the moral will. And the idea of the movie speaking to regular people — mothers and fathers and churches — to say it’s time for us to come together and demand good schools and believe again.
When people walk away from this film, what kind of reaction do you want from them? What kind of actions should they be inspired to take?
Well, the first step is seeing the movie, because it gives you this basic primer on how we’ve gotten to where we’re at. And it really shows you the stakes; you feel what it’s like to want your kid to have a great education or to want to have big dreams. And you feel the consequences when you see Daisy and Anthony [students] in this movie. So that’s the first thing: to really see the movie and feel the stakes. And the next thing you do is act locally. See how you can help your local school. There are a hundred ways to help –simple ways like mentoring and volunteering, and then bigger ways like knowing who your school board member is, and letting your voice be heard, and joining your church or group and saying, let’s use our group power to push leaders to go further and to make decisions that are good for kids.
How has this film changed you?
It’s funny. When you have a little documentary and it starts to do well, you realize that it does well because of these “little angels” all the along the way — members of the press, elected officials, regular people who tell friends to go. The success of a little documentary comes from all these people. I find myself saying at the end of the day to everybody, “God bless you.” I’m not sure what religion I am, but “God bless you” — only because I feel like it really takes a certain kind of shared belief to get this thing done and to really bring people together to do something good. That’s the exciting part about it. That’s how it’s changed me. I’m just one piece of it. I’m a filmmaker, so I’m doing my piece. But everyone along the way is doing his or her piece, from mothers and dads, to teachers, to pastors and politicians.
In Waiting for ‘Superman,’ director Davis Guggenheim examines the reasons for America’s public education crisis, and challenges us to do something about it.
I recently had the opportunity to view the new documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’ at a special pre-release screening. As an urban pastor, in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, education and its impact on our children has become an issue close to my heart. So I settled into my seat with high hopes for the potential of this film to shine light on the many problems facing our nation’s schools. I was not disappointed.
Director Davis Guggenheim strikes an effective balance between telling personal stories (he follows the journey of five students) while also examining the demise of the national public school system, at a systemic level, over the past four decades. It is not a pretty tale.
The curious title of the film comes from Geoffrey Canada, the innovative and relentless leader of the nationally acclaimed Harlem Children’s Zone. Canada tells the story of growing up in the projects of the Bronx and how he often fantasized about someone swooping in from the outside and saving him and his friends. His favorite superhero was Superman, who always seemed to show up when the people were in the greatest peril. Even as a young child, Canada knew the residents of his neighborhood were in grave danger because of socioeconomic inequities. It was a life-altering moment for him when his mother sternly warned him, “Geoffrey, Superman is not coming to save us. Nobody is coming to save us. We have to find our own way out.”
With this anecdote, Canada connects the viewer to the seriousness of this issue. He points out how children begin receiving contradictory messages about education from an early age. They are told, on one hand, that education is the key to being successful in this country’s economy. On the other hand, he says, they attend local schools that are “failure factories” that give them no chance at academic success. Kids are smart, and they interpret what is happening. They perceive early on that “this society is a cold, hard place.” They see that they are getting the short end of the stick, and they don’t know why. But they quickly figure out that there is no use in waiting for a superhero to fix the problem.
Throughout the film we are drawn into an emotional connection with the five young students (Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily) and their respective parents/guardians. Each child shows a great deal of aptitude and hope for the future, yet each is in danger because they live in a neighborhood with failing or dysfunctional schools. I imagine that each person in the audience who watches this will closely identify with at least one of the children.
For me it was Bianca, an amazing sixth-grader who wants to become a doctor someday so that she can spend her life “helping people.” As she shares her dreams, it’s easy to think that this bright girl’s internal drive and the nurture and support of her loving family should be enough to help her succeed. But then Guggenheim’s camera pulls back to give us a full view of the dilapidated school Bianca is on track to attend for seventh grade. It is one of the schools deemed a “failure factory.” Attending there, he notes matter-of-factly, will drop Bianca’s chances of success to an almost impossible percentage. Her parents decide that that Bianca’s best chance for achieving her dream will be to get accepted to the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter school miles away. But KIPP has only a handful of spaces open and hundreds of applicants.
In the Trenches: Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada in the classroom. (Courtesy Paramount Pictures)
This is the essence of the first big point Guggenheim seems to be making in the film. In urban areas in particular, the vast majority of public schools range in quality somewhere between “mediocre,” at best, to “abject,” at worst. Typically in a large city there’s at least a handful of schools that are doing exceedingly well, but the demand to get into those schools is exponentially greater than the number of students those schools are able to admit.
As the film progresses, Guggenheim proposes what he seems to think may be the most substantial obstacle of all: selfish human agendas intertwined with antiquated policies and immoveable teacher unions. To make his point, the director spends a large amount of time following Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system. Rhee is a fiery and dynamic personality whose brash efforts at school reform are shown to be both innovative and polarizing. In Guggenheim’s narrative, she and Geoffrey Canada (as well as other iconoclastic teachers and administrators) represent the kind of super-persons required to rescue an imploding system. But the odds are stacked against them like a wall of Kryptonite.
Guggenheim weaves in and out of the lives of the five students and their families while regularly coming back to the list of obstacles to educational equity. Teacher tenure for those in the public school system is another heavy issue that’s tackled. How can a school insist on great teachers if there is no motivation for greatness and no way to fire underperforming teachers? Other obstacles explored include confusion between federal and state regulations, poor leadership in schools, and unmotivated teachers.
It’s here that Guggenheim is bound to run into the greatest amount of resistance from some within the public education community. With his previous film, An Inconvenient Truth, the director drew the skepticism and ire of conservative critics who question the science behind global warming. With Waiting for ‘Superman,’ teacher unions and the politicians (primarily Democrats) who depend on them most for support comes under the most severe scrutiny. But, to be sure, Guggenheim spends just as much time highlighting the extraordinary and often sacrificial efforts of teachers who are making a difference in their students’ lives.
As the documentary moves toward its conclusion, at least two major themes emerge. First, Guggenheim wants to bring into the open a fallacy that has become too commonplace behind closed doors: that children in poverty-stricken neighborhoods cannot be educated at as high a level as children in middle-class environments. To make his point, he takes viewers deep into two successful charter-school models: KIPP — which now runs 52 schools and counting — and the Harlem Children’s Zone. In a nation with increasingly low expectations for urban schools, these two models are changing the stakes. Both are generating incredible results year after year, and these results are changing the landscape. Guggenheim observes that children from KIPP and HCZ are not just achieving scores higher than other poor kids; they are achieving scores higher than all kids.
The second big theme is the call to all Americans (not just educators) to be concerned, and even outraged, by the discrepancies that exist in our public-school systems. Viewers are instructed to take action by visiting the film’s website for tips that include getting involved by attending local school board meetings, donating funds to help purchase supplies for under-resourced schools, and encouraging your governor and other state leaders to adopt the Common Core Standards as a way of improving the quality of the schools in your state.
For me, the most poignant moment of the documentary came near the end. We travel with each of the five children attending the lotteries where they will discover whether or not they have been accepted into the schools that give them their best shot at success. As you see the lottery balls turning in slow motion and names being drawn out of a hat, it seems impossible to believe that the fate of these children is left to something as arbitrary as a random drawing.
At a personal level, I’m both provoked and inspired by Waiting for ‘Superman.’ The film’s message compels me to do more. It makes me hope that many of us will rise to the challenge for the sake of our kids. It reminds me of the piercing words of Jesus of Nazareth, who said, “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6, NIV).
The educational system in this country has become a stumbling block for too many children and families. If nothing else, Waiting for ‘Superman’ exposes the mish-mash of agendas and broken-down systems that brought us to the sad place we are today. We must deepen the national conversation about how to best improve schools. But even more important, we must experience a national awakening to the importance of our children. We must place their futures at the forefront of our agendas.
Waiting for ‘Superman’ opens Sept. 24 in limited release and everywhere on Oct. 8. For more information, visit the film’s website.