Teachers re-bond in wake of 'Superman'


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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."

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Like this comment
Posted by Ol' Homeboy
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Oct 27, 2010 at 12:31 pm

The film "Waiting for Superman" has supplied the wake-up call that the entire public education system has needed for at least a decade. Sure, our schools here on the Peninsula are probably better than most, but they certainly are not without problems and there is much room for improvement. Kudos to Woodside Principal, David Reilly, for repositioning his initial, defensive stance to the Film's depiction of Woodside High School to one of positive direction. It sounds like he's turning a lemon into lemonade — the students and the community will all benefit from this action.

Like this comment
Posted by btkmenlo
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Oct 28, 2010 at 9:05 am

I liked the film. There are problems. Vision is a major issue with me. Kids in the lower socio-economic levels don't seem to have a vision. I believe that vision for all children starts at the home. Parents need to give them a vision of why they are going to school and for what reason, What are the benefits? and to keep reminding them of the benefits. High School years can be tumultuous for many kids. Parenting is such an important part for success. Parents that didn't do well in HS need to point to a greater vision than theirs was. Some parents need a vision themselves of what they missed. Teachers do their best to teach and inspire, but the flesh is weak for all kids. Give kids a reason to sink their teeth into something and they will work towards it or hopefully run after it.

Like this comment
Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Oct 28, 2010 at 9:50 am

btkmenlo said, "Parenting is such an important part for success."

Bingo. Student performance and teacher accountability flow from parental involvement. If parents don't care, there's a very good chance their children won't either.

The real question is how does society get engagement from a disengaged parent? I don't have the answer to that one.

Like this comment
Posted by elle
a resident of Woodside School
on Oct 28, 2010 at 10:56 am

Did I read this right? The principal even won't necessarily send his own children to Woodside High? That speaks volumes.

Based on my personal experience in raising kids in Woodside, WHS uses race to pre-determine where students will placed in classes despite their middle school performance and experience (and placement tests). For example, one year when one of my children was graduating 8th grade and getting ready for High School, the students were being placed for math class freshman year. We had one hispanic student who was performing in math better than some of our white students, yet he (the hispanic) was placed at WHS in a lower level math class than some of the affluent white students who had struggled in math. A Hispanic name will automatically place a student lower from the get go.

Woodside High needs to view children as individuals.

Like this comment
Posted by Simple Simon
a resident of Oak Knoll School
on Oct 28, 2010 at 6:30 pm

I'm glad the film provided a galvanizing experience for the Woodside faculty. Take away the pro-Charter & Anti-union agenda of the film. US Public Education is still horrible. Money, Unions, Tenure, Charter Schools haven't fixed it. Are we Americans intellectually inferior to the rest of the Developed World? Seriously, because based upon objective criteria (test scores) we are under-performing. Why?

However, in the film, Woodside was used as a foil to Summit in regards to tracking. Woodside was identified as a good school (it is a great school), but one that still only prepared 1/3 of its students for University. I don't think this is Woodside's or their teachers fault. It is an institutional expectation and our society is totally fine with it.

Sadly, our students are tracked as early as 6th grade - depending upon what math class they are assigned. If a child doesn't pass Algebra in 8th grade, they don't qualify for UC.

Waiting for Superman is so biased, it is practically a characterization. But there is still a great deal of truth, if you are not one of the lucky ones selected, have a life-changing teacher, live in the right zip code or have very engaged parents - your chance at academic success is very unlikely.

My lasting impressions of the film are:
1) Drop-out factories
2) Rubber rooms for bad teachers
3) Administration totally out of touch with classroom needs
4) Horribly dismal academic performance by U.S. students

One aspect of this article I find absolutely ridiculous is: "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." I really doubt that students in the countries that kick our a*s academically are concerned about fostering a sense of "belonging and accomplishment." These cultures that value education pressure their students to succeed or else they are labelled failures. Harsh, but much more effective AND real as we look at our role in the Global Economy. Look at the nationality of many of our medical, engineering, software and bio-tech workers, the majorities come from other countries or other parts of the U.S. Are Bay Area natives only good for service occupations???

Like this comment
Posted by Observer
a resident of Woodside High School
on Oct 28, 2010 at 10:33 pm

@Simple Simon
some good comments, but one clarification. It *is* possible to prepare for UC / CSU without 8th grade algebra: it is a major part of Summit's math program and they've demonstrated success on this front with students of all backgrounds.

Reaching that success without 8th grade algebra takes sustained and focused hard work by teachers and students, but if it is made a mission, it very much can be achieved.

@POGO & btkmenlo
one of the avenues to overcome this problem is engaging the parents and families. There is no magic silver bullet (or Superman) but that culture can be woven into the fabric of a school by creating opportunities to encourage engagement where it may not have existed before. This may mean everything from visiting the family home to adjusting projects and better tapping the diverse skills of the community. One method Summit uses is having the family view and participate in the four year roadmap to college that is individually tailored for all students.

Like this comment
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Oct 28, 2010 at 10:42 pm

There is indeed a magic bullet. It is the abolition of government run education.

Like this comment
Posted by R.Gordon
a resident of another community
on Oct 29, 2010 at 12:54 pm

ALL high school graduates should be give a minimum of ONE YEAR to travel the world and see what life is like outside America. The ones who are serious about careers in medicine should go to Africa and to other countries where starvation and lack of education would make them mature much more quickly and forget their luxury living.
IF anyone has the opportunity through family and friends to work in a really good training program, they should take it.
Education for the most part, is useless the first year of college in America today,and the world is now in deep trouble and being from a prestigious and wealthy bunch of communities should FORCE parents to give their children the GIFT of experience and not concentrate on just the stereotypical educations Americans offer.
Stanford has 70% of its graduate students from abroad.THEY will be the entrepreneurs so many of you seek for your children.
Have them learn about LIFE.

Like this comment
Posted by POGO
a resident of Woodside: other
on Oct 29, 2010 at 7:08 pm

R. Gordon suggests "ALL high school graduates should be give a minimum of ONE YEAR to travel the world and see what life is like outside America." Last I looked, no one was stopping them, were they? In fact, at least according to our school officials, graduating students are taking a year or more off to find themselves (schools use that to explain why fewer students go to college).

Observer suggests that we can overcome disengaged parents by (in part) "visiting the family home to adjusting projects and better tapping the diverse skills of the community. One method Summit uses is having the family view and participate in the four year roadmap to college that is individually tailored for all students."

It's a wonderful sentiment and I'm certainly for any reasonable effort to engage parents of students. But as foreign as it may seem, some families do not value education, are suspicious of public institutions or so dysfunctional (absent parent, alcoholic, you name it) that they cannot be reached. We should do our best but in the end you cannot legislate parental engagement.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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