College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

‘Superman’ Builds Houses—and Learns

By Safford "Lavelle" Baskins — October 05, 2010 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A few weeks ago, I was invited to a Chicago screening of “Waiting For ‘Superman,’” the new documentary about education that’s getting so much attention. (“Anticipation and Controversy Surround ‘Superman’ Release,” Sept. 1, 2010.) It was great and eye-opening and a little strange. At times, I felt as if I was watching my own life story on the big screen, even though I’ve never really thought of my life as Hollywood before.

And yet, after dropping out of school and eventually getting back on track through a great education-and-job-training program, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to help students like me make it. Certain things emphasized in the movie rang true for me, like when your neighborhood school fails to provide the kind of academic program and support system that kids like me need.

My story is this: I gave it my all in my high school on Chicago’s South Side. But I got picked on, and so I hung out with guys who didn’t. They were in a gang, and I started hanging out with the wrong crowd. I didn’t start trouble, but it came to me. Whenever I went to teachers, the principal, or deans, it wouldn’t get resolved. I didn’t feel like my school was safe, or that my teachers cared. I felt like they didn’t want me at school because they would still get paid whether I was there or not. There wasn’t much going on in school that interested me or seemed worth learning. I was just putting in the time. Pretty soon, the streets seemed like a safer bet than sitting in a classroom wasting time.

So, when I was 17 or 18 years old, I just stopped going.

On the other hand, my mentor, Bertram Givan, who watched the movie with me, got good grades and played basketball in school. But he jumped around to different high schools in central Illinois and came up short on credits to graduate. Midway through his senior year, he was looking for evening or summer classes, but resorted to what he was comfortable with: street and gang activity. He quit school and eventually spent some time in jail. Like me, it took becoming a father for him to realize he needed to change his life.

We both got into the YouthBuild McLean County program in Bloomington, Ill. In YouthBuild programs across the country, young people who have dropped out of high school spend half their time finishing their high school diplomas or earning their GEDs. They spend the other half learning job skills by building affordable housing for homeless or poor families.

YouthBuild changed our lives, and the model is something schools can learn from.

When I first started, I thought it would be the same as my high school in Chicago. But it was completely different. Everything I was learning had a point, and I knew that I was getting skills I could use on the job. My teachers didn’t judge my past. They would say, “Your past is bad, but we aren’t going to look at that. We are here to help you make a new future.” My teachers cared about me, and I had support like I didn’t even have at home. That support system needs to be there for students to excel in life. I felt safe there.

If I ran into a bump, I would explain the barriers, and my teachers helped me figure out solutions. Once or twice, for example, I was stranded at home and had no way to get to school. The staff members helped me figure out transportation. Another time, I was having problems providing Pampers and milk for my son, and they gave me Wal-Mart cards and told me about organizations that would help out.

For Bertram, developing those close personal relationships with staff members made all the difference. Plus, he felt like the teachers recognized different kids have different learning styles. To expect a student to sit down and listen to a lecture for an hour just doesn’t work for everyone. The teachers had a way of getting us interested in a subject and seeing why we needed to know this stuff. For the first time, learning wasn’t a chore.

When no one expected anything from us, that's what we delivered.

Bertram found out that when teachers expected more of him, a lot more than his teachers in public school did, he expected more, too. When no one expected anything from us, that’s what we delivered.

Bertram finished the program in 2005, got his GED, and went on to community college and made the dean’s list. Like me, he thought he was going to be a probation officer, but currently is working on his bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership at Greenville College, in Greenville, Ill. Now, we both work at YouthBuild and help students who are like we were.

I never saw myself graduating from high school before. I just didn’t see it. But this past June, at age 22, I got a high school diploma through the program. I’m now in my third semester at Heartland Community College, in Normal, Ill. I know now that the more I learn, the more options I’ll have.

There ain’t no stopping me now. After finding a program that understood all that I needed to succeed academically, I got that first foundation to build the house—that first cement block—my diploma. And now, I’m going to build me a mansion with 50 bedrooms. The sky’s the limit as far as my education goes.

A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as ‘Superman’ Builds Houses


Student Well-Being Webinar After-School Learning Top Priority: Academics or Fun?
Join our expert panel to discuss how after-school programs and schools can work together to help students recover from pandemic-related learning loss.
Budget & Finance Webinar Leverage New Funding Sources with Data-Informed Practices
Address the whole child using data-informed practices, gain valuable insights, and learn strategies that can benefit your district.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Classroom Technology Webinar
ChatGPT & Education: 8 Ways AI Improves Student Outcomes
Revolutionize student success! Don't miss our expert-led webinar demonstrating practical ways AI tools will elevate learning experiences.
Content provided by Inzata

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness Everyone Earns an Industry Certification and Most Go to College in This CTE Program
Pittsburgh Public Schools' CTE students are graduating with at least one industry certification and a confirmed post-graduation plan.
10 min read
Tenth graders, TaeLyn Johnson, left, and Dilana Gray, right, practice on a dummy during their EMS class at Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh, Pa., on Dec. 13, 2022.
Tenth graders TaeLyn Johnson, left, and Dilana Gray practice EMS skills during a career and technical education class at Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh on Dec. 13, 2022.
Nate Smallwood for Education Week
College & Workforce Readiness The May Internship: Can It Help Schools Cure Senioritis?
A full-time, monthlong internship is helping seniors stay engaged at a Baltimore school.
5 min read
Anna Trudeau, 18, a senior at Friends School of Baltimore, works as an intern at the calcium channels lab at the University of Maryland School of Medicine Department of Physiology in Baltimore, Md., on May 18, 2023. Friends School of Baltimore has seniors spend their final month of high school working at an internship.
Anna Trudeau, a senior at Friends School of Baltimore, takes a break from her internship at a laboratory at the University of Maryland School of Medicine Department of Physiology in Baltimore, Md., on May 18, 2023. Twelfth graders at her school spend their final month of high school working at full-time internships.
Matt Roth for Education Week
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion The Nation Is Still at Risk: The Urgency of Workforce Preparation
The labor market needs education to evolve. Career and technical education has an important role to play, writes Anthony P. Carnevale.
Anthony P. Carnevale
5 min read
Illustration of a figure walking through a landscape of vocational iconography.
Liana Nagieva/iStock + Vanessa Solis/Education Week
College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says Students Pay a Growing Price for Landing a Job Outside Their College Major
Researchers think better guidance in high school could lessen the cost to young people in long-term income.
3 min read
Young girl working on an electrical panel in a classroom setting.