Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Waiting for 'Superman': Review From LA Film Festival

Why are our public schools failing our kids?

That's what filmmaker Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth") asks in his latest documentary, Waiting for "Superman," which appeared as a Gala Screening this week at the Los Angeles Film Festival.

In the film, Guggenheim talks to innovative educators such as Geoffrey Canada, the Harlem-born and Harvard-educated head of the New York City neighborhood's Harlem Children's Zone, who has personally vowed that no child accepted into his programs will be left behind -- from early childhood through college.

Guggenheim also sits down with Washington, D.C., chancellor of public schools Michelle Rhee, whose refreshing candor about the "crappy education" her district's kids are receiving is highlighted only by her kick-ass-and-take-names attitude toward separating the wheat from the bureaucratically stymied chaff.

But it's the stories of the kids he follows -- Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy and Emily -- that offer the most gut-wrenching look into how desperately our educational system needs to be fixed -- and stat.

Watching this movie as a parent was difficult -- especially seeing how stuck the parents felt about their situations. Most were low-income moms and dads who wanted more for their kids. And while they were supporters of their children, they were also dubious about breaking away from a system that doesn't offer a lot of options.

Each child's excitement as he or she talked about wanting to go to college or be a teacher or a veterinarian was both inspiring and devastating. What they were relying on was a lottery, and each of them wanted to be picked to gain access to a better education through a proven charter school.

Their futures literally came down to a Bingo ball.

Guggenheim does a tremendous job of showing a broken system and the people who really advocate for change -- which, seemingly in his eyes, does not include the rigid teachers' unions.

The children he has chosen to follow are all bright, driven and want something better for themselves. So do their parents.

While he does talk to one upper-middle class family, I believe he would have benefited from talking to other middle-class families -- although perhaps their stories might not have been as dire.

Also, there are some related issues that he doesn't mention, including parental involvement, challenging home lives or discipline issues that crop up in public schools that make it a challenge for teachers to actually teach.

More than just offering one answer to a complex problem, Guggenheim lets the educators speak for themselves and offer their own ideas on how to enact change.

But what Guggenheim appears to be saying -- no, pleading for -- is for change to actually happen.

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