A failing education system, bad teachers, below average students, and a country falling behind – the film "Waiting for Superman" explores education in the United States and its continuing failing factors. This suspenseful tear-jerker takes viewers into the lives of promising students in a school system that hinders instead of helps them to reach academic success.
The film, a Davis Guggenheim documentary, analyzes what it calls "dropout factories" and "academic sinkholes" that the nation's students are trapped in, with teachers who cannot be fired, and a system that allows even bad teachers automatic tenure.
"You wake up every morning and you know that kids are getting a crappy education right now," lamented Michelle Rhee, chancellor of D.C. public schools.
In an attempt to escape the poor education system, students across the country vye for a spot in public charter schools, which are well-funded and have better academic standards. The film follows five such students whose chances of getting in to a charter school are dependent on a lottery.
Names are selected randomly during the lottery. There is typically ten times the number of students than there are openings, which means a lot of heartache and most of the students retreating back to their own poor neighborhood public school.
Ten years ago the problems in U.S. public schools felt hopeless, said award-winning filmmaker Guggenheim. But today, he sees reformers who are proving "it's entirely possible to create outstanding schools even in the most troubled neighborhoods."
Since her start in 2007, Rhee has fought to reform a system whose schools had the lowest math and reading scores in the nation. This film shows the never-ending paper trail and small print in union contracts that Rhee had to sift through to attempt even minor changes. In 2008, Rhee did manage to close more than 20 schools in the District due to overcrowding and she fired hundreds of ineffective educators. Rhee isn't the only one making changes and hitting the system head on.
Geoffrey Canada, a Bronx native and product of the New York public school system, is the president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone in Harlem, N.Y., also featured in the film.
"Either the kids are getting stupider every year, or something is wrong in the education system," said Canada.
In 1997 Canada and some colleagues planned to target a 100-block radius in the poorest neighborhood in Harlem. Opening a school with longer hours and classes on weekends and during the summer would have sent some kids running, but more sat in line waiting to be accepted.
Canada's advocacy for education reform has paid off for his students.
They rank the highest in reading, math, and science in the country. They have closed the education gap between lower and middle class America, an idea that was thought to be impossible simply because of the staggering statistics that have proven America's children are behind.
Among 30 developed countries, the U.S. ranks 25th in math and 21st in science. In nearly every other subject, the U.S. falls behind. However, the one category that every American child seems to rank high in is confidence!
The dismal statistics have grabbed the attention of churches and pastors around the nation. A movement called We are Not Waiting has allowed churches and other faith-based institutions to join with educators and administrators in the public school system.
Illustrating just how serious the problem was, Dan Cortes, a former pastor in Philadelphia said, "I had an honor student who was about to graduate high school and she couldn't read one verse in the King James version of the Bible, which basically told me she was functionally illiterate."
Other faith-based organizations are joining in the fight to improve the education standards. The Christian Educators Association International is a non-profit religious organization that empowers educators in public and private schools. Founded in 1953, it is the only professional association for Christians who are called to serve in public schools. Its members include classroom teachers, administrators, and para-professionals in education.
Former educator, principal, counselor, and superintendent Finn Laursen believes "if you take the truth and pour it into these children, you'll see improvement."
Now executive director of the CEAI, Laursen noted how the recent education reforms have shown that the system is not working.
"They keep putting all this money into reforms, and we're not seeing results. The focus in the classroom sometimes is to be able to control the child."
The CEAI has a different method of teaching – one Laursen describes as being based on truth and love.
"We call it 'teaching Christianly,' seeing the child as being created in the image of God, and therefore having value, having respect; both ways, not controlling the child," he explained.
The CEAI holds conferences around the nation to equip Christian educators on how to teach students while holding to Christian standards. He likened his educators to Daniel, as the Bible describes him in a foreign land.
"He was in a foreign place, but he took over and became a ruler. He had a plan, he had a strategy," Laursen highlighted.
Sheridan Avenue United Methodist Church, a church of less than 30 members, has employed a practical strategy in response to the education crisis. The church has partnered with Hamilton Middle School for more than six years, donating funds and supplies, providing volunteers for testing, and also arranging for some unique opportunities for the students such as trips to the museum.
Pastor Dr. Joe Lynch stated simply, "Congregants can be volunteers. Churches can be sites for after school programs. Your congregation's involvement is only limited by your imagination."
"Waiting for Superman" opens in theaters Friday.
On the Web: http://www.wearenotwaiting.com/