Almanac

Schools - October 13, 2010

Local schools featured in 'Superman'

by Dave Boyce

Woodside High School and Summit Preparatory Charter High School now have something in common with former New York Yankees superstar outfielder Mickey Mantle. All three make appearances in "Waiting for 'Superman,'" a harsh and compelling documentary that dissects the condition of U.S. public education through the experiences of five families and five charter schools.

While Mickey Mantle, a public school graduate, has been called "Superman in Pinstripes" in reference to the Yankees' striped uniform, that is not why he was included in this film.

Director Davis Guggenheim used Mr. Mantle to illustrate the difference between public education outcomes today and outcomes from the mid 20th century, when the United States was riding high and a high school diploma that met the needs of those times could propel a kid into the middle class and sometimes beyond.

Much of the action takes place in areas of deep and persistent poverty, including Harlem, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Woodside High and Summit Prep appear to have been chosen to undermine any presumptions about the same thing not happening in deep-pocketed school districts.

A central point of the film, the overwhelming demand across the economic spectrum for excellent educational experiences, and the lack of faith in traditional public schools to provide them, comes home again and again in scene after scene of children's futures being determined by lotteries.

By law, when a charter school or any other public school is over- subscribed, admission must be by lottery. In each charter school profiled in the film, the oversubscription rate is astounding and the ensuing lottery scenes are moving and uniformly heartbreaking.

The film asks whether U.S. public schools, broadly speaking, are meeting the challenges of today, when a bachelor's degree has essentially become a necessity. Mr. Guggenheim says no.

His film asserts that everyone knows this; that far too many schools are graduating far too many students who are unprepared for college work; that the blame lies mostly with unqualified or lazy teachers and the unionized system that sustains and protects them; and that 20 percent of charter schools, which are public schools, know how to correct this increasingly dire situation and are engaged in doing it now; and that they're doing it primarily by employing great teachers.

Randi Weingarten, who heads the American Federation of Teachers, asserts that the overwhelming majority of teachers have students as their first concern and that it is wrong to place so much of the blame for such a complex set of problems on them.

Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C., has a different focus. "There's this unbelievable willingness to turn a blind eye to the injustices that are happening to kids every single day in our schools in the name of harmony amongst adults," she says.

"Waiting for 'Superman,'" at 107 minutes long, is necessarily limited to sketching out a problem, not making an exhaustive inquiry.

Officials from the traditional schools, including Principal David Reilly of Woodside High, say that such broad-brush treatment compares apples to oranges, maddeningly passes over important differences that work to a charter school's advantage, and ignores popular amenities available in traditional schools such a major sports and arts programs.

Summit Prep Executive Director Todd Dickson is not eager to pile on. Indeed, he said in an interview that he had proposed issuing in response to the film a joint press release with the Sequoia Union High School District, which includes Woodside and Menlo-Atherton high schools. Superintendent James Lianides turned him down, Mr. Dickson said.

"We couldn't come to agreement on the language," he said in an e-mail. "I wanted it to focus on how we could focus as a district on increasing the number of students who were college ready, but Jim wanted it to focus on how the district has many great alternatives for high school."

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