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By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
As military veterans know, the feelings that develop after a group has been attacked often create strong bonds of loyalty and mutual support, knitting the individuals together into a tighter and more spirited pursuit of their mission.
Just such an aftereffect is galvanizing teachers and staff at Woodside High School following the simply drawn negative portrayal of the school in the controversial and compelling recent film "Waiting for Superman."
The documentary uses charter schools as a foil to accuse the U.S. educational establishment of widespread failure in preparing students for the fierce global competition that is awaiting them -- if they are accepted to college, and if they've been prepared to succeed there.
Woodside High, shot from the outside, is on the screen for maybe a minute. The focus is on Emily Jones, a Redwood City student who would normally go to Woodside but has applied to Summit Preparatory Charter High School and is chosen in the annual lottery. Emily and her family are concerned that her needs may be better met at Summit, which has less than one-fourth the students enrolled at Woodside.
Woodside Principal David Reilly has told The Almanac that he appreciates the diversity of options in the Sequoia Union High School District, particularly with a growing family of his own. His kids, depending on what their needs are, may be applying to Summit Prep or its sister school, Everest Public High School, he said.
But this film did not look in detail at the pros and cons of charters and traditional schools. A sketch of Woodside together with schools in the Bronx, Harlem, Washington, D.C., and East Los Angeles appears to show in common a profusion of students from poor socio-economic circumstances and presumably poor prospects for escaping them.
"I don't think anybody enjoys being mischaracterized or characterized in an incomplete manner," Mr. Reilly said. "This film has really drawn (the staff) closer together. There has been a great deal of dialogue on how do we get the truth out there."
The truth, in part, is parental involvement: In the film, the parents are engaged in their children's education. With engagement comes awareness of options, and they join the crowd of engaged families in lotteries that govern admission to high-performing charter schools, but with punishing odds of success.
If Woodside is any guide, however, the majority of at-risk students come from families that may be unaware of such options and the importance of education in determining a child's future, Mr. Reilly said.
For parents of this mindset, whether they're juggling multiple jobs or distracted by crushing poverty, school is where a neighborhood sends its kids. Could they or should they go somewhere else? Can they improve their options where they are? This film does not deal in detail with such questions.
At Woodside, while Mr. Reilly noted that all students are considered candidates for college, about 900 of the 1,800 families are classified as Title 1, meaning socio-economically challenged and deserving of federal aid.
The school invites these 900 families to three information nights a year to attempt to explain the critical importance of succeeding in high school. The events are catered and offer babysitting, and notices go out redundantly via phone and mail, Mr. Reilly said.
"The most we've ever had attend," he said, "is 90 families."
The next step is to hold at least some of these get-togethers in the neighborhoods. "We're trying to meet families more than halfway," Mr. Reilly said. "Students do fall through the cracks, but not without a bunch of scratches on their arms."
Teachers a target
A principal target in "Waiting for Superman" is teachers who are not great, and the unions that protect and sustain them. In the film, Michelle Rhee, chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, described the situation as "injustices that are happening to kids every single day in our schools in the name of harmony amongst adults."
Asked if the mission is about the students first and foremost at Woodside, Mr. Reilly replied: "When push comes to shove, it is. It is."
The continuous and collective growth of Woodside's teachers "inspires me and gives me hope," he added.
A recent change is the adoption of a program from the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations, a nonprofit based in Maine with a mission of providing guidance on effectively motivating students.
Among the essentials are building their confidence, creating for them a sense of belonging and of accomplishment, and fostering a spirit of adventure. These and other conditions "need to be in place if students are to strive for, and fulfill, their academic, personal and social promise," according to the website.
A core team of 24 of the school's 112 teachers meet with other teachers to talk about putting these principles into practice, Mr. Reilly said.
"We have spent a great deal of time and energy on the explicit curriculum. There is equal value in the implicit curriculum," he said. "Let's get this right and let's strike the right balance."
As for the film: "I think it's stimulated a great deal of dialogue, and that's for the better," Mr. Reilly said. "I'm happy that the film has been a catalyst for this dialogue."