Almanac

Schools - October 6, 2010

'Waiting for Superman' hits Woodside High School

by Chris Kenrick

Woodside High School is cast in an unflattering spotlight with the nationwide opening of the documentary "Waiting for Superman," a portrait of a troubled U.S. public school system.

But the film has "mischaracterizations and misrepresentations," according to Woodside Principal David Reilly.

The film paints Woodside as a "not so bad" high school, but asserts that just 62 percent of its freshmen go on to graduate, and that only 32 percent of the school's graduates meet entrance requirements for California's four-year public universities.

Mr. Reilly disputes those figures and said college-bound students in the class of 2010 exceeded 90 percent. He said if filmmakers had "talked with us and visited our schools," they "likely would have avoided some of the mischaracterizations and misrepresentations in the film."

The movie, which opened Oct. 1 in San Francisco and will open Friday, Oct. 8, in Palo Alto, has been commented on by President Obama and promoted by "Oprah."

It features billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates and others lamenting that American students lag far behind their counterparts in many countries — but that charter schools have demonstrated successful models for change.

Though mainly focusing on large inner-city "dropout factories," the film also highlights Woodside, which is characterized as a middle-class public school in wealthy Silicon Valley.

Among the movie's five student protagonists is Emily Jones of Redwood City, who tells filmmakers she was lucky to win the lottery to attend Summit Preparatory Charter High School instead of Woodside High.

Woodside ranks in Newsweek's top 6 percent of American high schools and "is not so bad," Academy Award-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim says.

However, it is not the best place for Emily, says Mr. Guggenheim, who also produced and directed "An Inconvenient Truth," featuring former Vice President Al Gore speaking on global warming.

Emily says she would have been "put into the low classes" at Woodside because she's not a good test-taker.

At Summit, "Everybody takes the same classes, even though you might not be the best speller or the best at taking tests," she says. "Everybody's taking the same thing and it's a great place to be."

In a lengthy e-mail, Woodside's Mr. Reilly said filmmakers rebuffed his efforts to share more information about the school.

"Although we were aware a segment of the film was being produced locally in spring 2009, we were told very little," he said.

"We offered for the filmmakers to learn more about Woodside and other schools in the Sequoia district, but the filmmakers declined. Had they talked with us and visited our schools, the filmmakers likely would have avoided some of the mischaracterizations and misrepresentations in the film."

In Woodside's class of 2010, 93 percent of graduates had plans to go to college, about half at four-year and half at two-year colleges, Mr. Reilly said.

The remainder, he said, chose military service, "gap-year" experiences such as travel, apprenticeships or employment.

He criticized the film's portrayal of Woodside's low graduation rate as failing "to factor in the attrition and turnover of students between ninth and 12th grade.

"The source of the information presented in the film is a study conducted through UCLA by the Institution for Democracy and Educational Access (IDEA)," Mr. Reilly said.

"This is complex information for a lay audience to absorb, and the study authors acknowledge in the appendix that the presentation of the data is imperfect.

"Over the course of four years, students will move into and out of the area, and this isn't reflected in the data," he said.

"Moreover, the study only documents graduates enrolled in public colleges in California. It does not document graduates enrolled in private colleges in California, nor public and private colleges outside of California, of which Woodside High has a fair number."

Except for special-needs students, all freshmen entering Woodside are registered in college-prep classes that satisfy the entrance requirements for the University of California and the California State University systems.

"A central focus of Woodside High is quality college preparation, and we have established a college-going culture on our campus," he said.

"We know there isn't a one-size-fits-all model of a successful school that meets all needs of all students. Nor is there a simple or singular solution for solving the complex problems of America's schools.

"We encourage public dialogue that focuses on ways to improve our schools while recognizing the complex nature of this undertaking."

Woodside is one of four comprehensive high schools in the Sequoia Union High School District and draws students from Redwood City, East Palo Alto, Woodside, Portola Valley and Menlo Park.

High school-age students from East Palo Alto are spread out among the four Sequoia campuses, and have a dropout rate estimated to be about 65 percent.

The Sequoia district once had a campus in East Palo Alto, Ravenswood High School, but closed it in 1976.

Two small charter high schools and one independent school currently operate in East Palo Alto and send nearly all of their graduates to college.

The four-year-old East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, run by charter operator Aspire Public Schools, graduated its first class of 21 seniors in June and all were accepted by four-year colleges.

The five-year-old Stanford University-run charter East Palo Alto Academy High School sends about 90 percent of its graduates to two- or four-year colleges.

The 14-year-old independent Eastside College Preparatory School, which runs a sixth-through-12th-grade program, has 100 percent of its graduates accepted to four-year colleges.

Go to is.gd/fFyh2 (case-sensitive) to view a message on "Waiting for Superman" by the principal of Woodside High School, David Reilly.

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