School & District Management

Documentary Shows No ‘Superman’ Salvation for Schools

By Dakarai I. Aarons — April 16, 2010 4 min read
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Documentaries have made the same point over and over: America’s public school system is failing many students and doing a pitiful job at preparing those we do graduate to compete in a global economy.

But in a new documentary film, an Academy Award-winning director is hoping to tell that story in a way that makes it more personal and inspires action.

“The challenge of the movie for us is how to tell the story in a different way,” said Davis Guggenheim, the director of “Waiting for Superman,” as he introduced the film to members of the national press and tastemakers at a screening in downtown Washington, D.C., last night. “We want the film to reach people and affect people.”

By using a mixture of statistics, interviews with education reformers, and the personal journeys of five students, Guggenheim, who made a 1999 documentary about first-year teachers, hopes he’s able to meet that goal.

“Waiting for Superman” is also narrated by Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” which examined global climate change. His new film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it was the first to be picked up by a distributor. It also won the Audience Award for a documentary.

Despite that, the precise date of the film’s fall debut is not yet set, nor are the cities in which it will be seen. But you can guarantee the nation’s capital will be one of them. “Waiting for Superman” features two of the city’s best-known education figures: D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and American Federation of Teachers President Weingarten.

In a film that shows footage from the early days of the Knowledge Is Power Program and Rhee at hearings facing off with angry parents and teachers, those in the education reform camp represented by the likes of Democrats for Education Reform, for example, are more likely to be happy with the depictions than say, Weingarten, who many filmgoers last night said seemed to be represented in a somewhat one-dimensional fashion.

“I drive past three public schools as I take my kids to a private school,” Guggenheim says in the film. “But I’m lucky. I have a choice.”

So many other families, he says, don’t have the choice to send their students to a good school. Or if an opportunity opens up, it is often by chance.

Over the course of the 102-minute film, Guggenheim takes us on a journey through the perils and pitfalls of American education, using the stories of Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily.

Anthony’s grandmother hopes his life ends up with a better fate than that of his father, a drug user who died. But the chances in his D.C. neighborhood are bleak if he moves on to a middle school The Washington Post once described as an “academic sinkhole.”

Even he is contemplating a better future: “I want my kids to have better than what I have,” Anthony says in a moment showing wisdom rarely seen in an elementary school student.

Francisco is a bright 1st grader who wants to like school, but isn’t finding much encouragement there. His mother takes his future into her own hands, hoping to ensure her son isn’t left behind.

Bianca and her mother, Nakia, provide some of the most heart-wrenching scenes. Nakia, a single mother, struggles to pay tuition for Bianca’s parochial school, adamant that her daughter will get the type of education that won’t leave her bouncing from job to job.

“I don’t care how many jobs I have to obtain,” Nakia says. “She will go to college, and there’s no second-guessing on that.” With a college degree, “you don’t get a job, you get a career, and there’s a difference.”

Daisy, a Latina 7th grader, wants to go to medical school, the odds of which are low, statistics would say, for a girl whose parents didn’t finish high school.

Emily and her family live in a comfortable Silicon Valley suburb, but they worry that Emily, who scores relatively low on tests, will get lost in the crowd in high school.

The students live in D.C, the Bronx, Harlem, Los Angeles, and Redwood City, Calif., respectively, and come from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. And for each, the chance at a new, potentially better educational trajectory comes in the form of chance: Each student has entered the lottery to get a spot in a charter or other nontraditional school.

Unlike other movies from Hollywood, not every story in this film has a neat, happy ending. And even for those students who do get the golden ticket, the journey has just begun.

As Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the renowned Harlem Children’s Zone, explains in the film, he hoped as a kid for someone to come save him from his bleak neighborhood. But he remembers how much he cried the day his mother told him Superman wasn’t real.

“I was crying because there was no one coming with enough power to save us.”

Check out Guggenheim talking about the film here:

Text-message users can send a text saying “possible” to 44144 to stay updated on the latest with “Waiting for Superman.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.