Viewpoint - November 3, 2010

Editorial: Cleaning up after 'Superman'

Woodside High School's teaching staff, whose style and substance were called into question in the documentary "Waiting for Superman," appears to be pulling together and making more of an effort to improve the education experience of its under-achieving students.

"Superman" included Woodside's under-achieving population in an examination that focused primarily on students in inner-city schools in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles — even though suburban schools like Woodside serve a community where even modest homes can sell for more than $1 million.

Woodside High appeared on the screen for less than a minute. That was enough time to show how a student, who wanted more than what she thought she could get at Woodside, applied for a lottery and won admission to the local Summit Preparatory Charter High, which consistently sees nearly all its graduating seniors accepted by a four-year college.

The message that underserved and/or under-prepared students can and do fall through the cracks is loud and clear in the film, along with the charge that so many socio-economically disadvantaged students who start grade 9 are nowhere to be found on graduation day.

Woodside High Principal David Reilly has plenty to say about the school's portrayal in the movie, including the legitimate complaint that the movie's producers did not visit the campus and discuss their concerns with Mr. Reilly or the school's teachers.

Now, still smarting from that snub and the film producers' refusal to look deeper into the reasons students drop out of or don't perform well in high school, Woodside teachers are making more of an effort to reach out to students and let them know they are welcome. That is an uphill climb, given the fact that many parents who send their children to Woodside High are not aware of their own important role in seeing their son or daughter graduate, and go on to college.

The "Superman" film needed an example to show that a wealthy suburban high school could fail its lower-rung students just as easily as a public school in Harlem. Sadly, that is true, but it is grossly unfair to slam Woodside High, or other similar schools in California, where many teachers are doing the best they can with the resources they have.

Although the schools need to do a better job of controlling the drop-out rate, many factors beyond their control can enter into the equation.

Charter schools have huge advantages, such as small class sizes and parents who are aware of their options in public education and motivated to find the best fit for their children. No student falls through the cracks at a good charter school.

Most high school administrators will say there is a need for both types of schools. Comprehensive schools offer a wide range of classes and extra-curricular activities, while charters tend to focus exclusively on academics.

Reforming the nation's public school system is akin to changing the course of an aircraft carrier: You need a lot of ocean. For public schools, that means a lot of effort, and time, and participation by parents.

Can charter school teaching methods be quickly grafted to a public high school? What schools are willing to be test cases? And there is the fact that the Sequoia Union High School District is not unified; it has no control over the academic qualifications of its incoming students, a huge handicap that has never been resolved and that prevents the kind of sweeping K-12 approach adopted by districts in San Francisco and San Jose.

Despite the good points made by "Superman," including the inability of school districts to fire incompetent, union-backed teachers, it will take time for even the best public schools to change their style and drastically lower the dropout rate. But the challenge is definitely out there, the gauntlet has been thrown down, and in the long run, we believe "Superman" could be a potent catalyst in bringing reform to public schools.


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