Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thoughts on Waiting for Superman

As a boy, Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, was devastated when his mother informed him that there was no Superman. His mother thought his reaction stemmed from the same emotions that overcame him when he found out that there was no Santa Claus. Quite the opposite, Canada explains, finding out that there was no Superman made him realize that there was no one coming to save him from the life he feared would be his.

These days, Canada is Superman to a group of kids that is small in comparison to the number of children who desperately need his particular brand of ingenuity and creativity in education. Featured in the documentary film Waiting For Superman, Canada makes a plea for America to save its children from the grim lives that await them if our educational system is allowed to continue in its present decline into chaos.

The United States, once a leader in education worldwide, now ranks 18th among the 36 industrialized nations. This film examines this crisis by following the educational obstacles faced by three students who are striving to get the best education possible while living in poverty and one student who feels that her upper middle class school is failing her.

I learned a few new terms from this film:

1. Dancing lemons – the practice of moving bad teachers from school to school because they cannot be fired.
2. Drop-out factories – schools where the majority of students never graduate.
3. Academic sinkholes – schools that are primarily babysitting institutions.

I also learned of some situations that surprised me. For instance, tenure is not performance based in most public schools. Rather, it is an award for the amount of time a teacher has spent in a system. Another surprising fact: it is almost impossible to fire tenured teachers, regardless of their performance.

Call me naïve, but I was shocked to learn that in most poverty centers, children can gain admittance to charter and magnet schools only by lottery, even though those very schools are their only hope of getting a decent education. Demand is high, and just a small fraction of the children who enter the lottery are chosen to attend these schools. Of the four children profiled in this film, only 2 are chosen.

The mother of one of the little girls in this film works several jobs in order to pay the $500 monthly tuition required for her daughter to attend Catholic school. When the mother’s hours are cut back and she gets behind on the payments, the school forbids her daughter to participate in its graduation ceremony. Seeing this little girl watch her classmates walk into the school to take part in the ceremony from which she has been banned is heartbreaking.

David Guggenheim, the award-winning documentarian behind this film, seems to think the problem lies with teachers and teachers unions. In many instances, union rules make it impossible to reward exceptional teachers, while at the same time protecting the jobs of inadequate teachers.

Nowhere in this film are parents held accountable. The parents of the four children profiled are responsible and are making their children’s educations their first priority, regardless of the cost to them. If more parents were this concerned about their children’s education, could that not go a long way towards solving the problem? Aren't drug use and absentee parents factors contributing to our failing classrooms?

As a professional storyteller, I have worked in many schools, rural as well as inner city. Most of the teachers I have worked with clearly love their jobs and the children they teach. Many of them spend their own money and personal time to help children in need.

In one inner city high school, I witnessed a student threaten a teacher who asked him to quit hanging around in the hall and go to class. In a Richmond, Virginia school, a teacher had her wrist broken while trying to break up a fight. Such teachers should get combat pay, not the paltry sums that they are expected to live on.

As one who was born in poverty, I am grateful for the teachers who influenced my life:

Mrs. Wiggins – my first grade teacher, who told me that my Appalachian accent was elegant. The kids who made fun of the way I talked took note and left me alone.

Mrs. Geddie – my second grade teacher, who defended me against the school secretary who wanted to have me suspended for forgetting to bring in my immunization form.

Mrs. Harrison – my third grade teacher, who let me paint with water colors to my heart’s delight.

Mrs. Mabry – my sixth grade teacher, who taught me to how to write and how to read for fun.

Mrs. Horne, my 11th and 12th grade English teacher, who taught me the power of the comma and to love poetry.

Returning our schools to their glory years will be achieved only if all parties involved (teachers, unions, administrators, parents, the community) agree that our children’s futures are worth salvaging and make the tremendous effort required to bring that about. Do not this nation’s children, the future leaders of this country, deserve first rate educations?

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