Local schools featured in 'Superman'


Click on picture to enlarge and see caption.

By Dave Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

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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Like this comment
Posted by matt
a resident of another community
on Oct 12, 2010 at 12:54 pm

The biggest problem facing our schools is the students themselves: the vast majority of them have no interest in learning, succeeding, or achieving any sort of scholarly success whatsoever.

This film can blame unions and teachers all it wants, but until a parent or guardian slaps their kid in the face and nails in the fact that they MUST succeed in school, or else, we are hopeless.

At some point one has to take away the politics; blaming teachers and unions for this is bush league - the fault for the state of our public school system lies with students who don't want to learn and parents who don't care.

Like this comment
Posted by MDean
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 12, 2010 at 1:11 pm

One the points of the film is that kids do want to learn and that we are failing them. The failure of a community is more likely to be caused from the failure of a school system ... not the other way around.

When it stops being about the adults and more about the kid's education, we might get somewhere ... Michelle Rhee is an inspiration ...go girl!

Like this comment
Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Oct 12, 2010 at 2:03 pm

We often hear about schools with extraordinarily high per student spending failing and schools with almost shameful resources producing excellence. I don't think success (however you choose to define it), is a function of teacher pay or tenure, student demographics, curriculum, or the modernity of a facility.

The biggest single factor, in my humble opinion, is parent involvement.

You can take the poorest kids from the worst neighborhoods and put them in very average schools. If they have an engaged parent, they will find a way to succeed. I have witnessed this first hand with very underprivileged kids from our immediate area now in post-graduate studies at Stanford and Berkeley.

You can take the richest kids from the best neighborhoods and put them in the most advanced schools with the best teachers. Without an engaged parent, they will find a way to fail. I think we have all witnessed this phenomenon.

More emphasis on parenting and holding parents accountable. Less emphasis on teacher pay, school facilities and testing.

Like this comment
Posted by Izzy
a resident of another community
on Oct 12, 2010 at 2:11 pm

Didn't you guys already talk about all this?

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Happy Mom
a resident of Woodside High School
on Oct 12, 2010 at 8:29 pm

Woodside High School certainly prepared my child well for college - she got all A's, including one in an upper division class, in her first semester at UC Berkeley. I am assured that no matter how innately intelligent she is; she could not have accomplished that without superior high school preparation. By the way, she got into Berkeley without any tutoring, SAT prep classes, or even letting her parents proofread her application.

Like this comment
Posted by a concerned taxpayer
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 12, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Does this movie take into account the fact that many enter into Woodside reading at the third grade level and are learning English as a second language with parents that are semi-illiterate? The parents care but are busy working and caring for other children. The Sequoia District works hard to correct but miracles cannot be performed without a lot of work and diligence by all involved: teachers, parents and students. The ones that go to Summit have parents that are more involved as is required. Some that do go to Summit drop out and return to the normal school. It seems to me that this movie jumps to conclusions too quickly without understanding all the factors involved. Without the unions, public schools would be in worse shape than they are today.

Like this comment
Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Oct 13, 2010 at 6:53 am

Happy Mom -

Thank you for making my point... again.

Like this comment
Posted by Jordan
a resident of Portola Valley: Los Trancos Woods/Vista Verde
on Apr 22, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Students who don't want to learn are a reflection of a home enviroment that doesn't encourage their success and a reflection of a school system that doesn't believe in them. When we start reaching out to the community, and motivating students to want to learn by telling them not only CAN they succeed, but we EXPECT them too(and will do what it takes to help them) then will we see change.

Woodside is a great fit for some students, but for every student that graduates with the credits able to go to college, there are 9 more who graduate but will not have the credits to go to a four year university. At MA in 2007-08 about 10.5% dropped out--that's not exactly success. There are plenty of others who do not succeed in the system so to say that the district schools are effective is not accurate--they are effective with students who have parent involvement, and strong academic skills, and were on an AP track in middle school. But those students are very much so in the majority.

Summit takes students from the same demographic as the district schools-- and those students succeed. Its true some students go to Summit and then leave-- its not the right fit for everybody. But those students do not make up the students who need the most help at all--and they are in the minority.

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