The future of the Black community is in the classroom

By Sondra Samuels
Guest Commentator

The film Waiting for ‘Superman’ points the way

If you are willing to take a sobering look at America’s broken educational system and contemplate how that translates into the greatest crisis facing the Black community today, then you must go see the controversial documentary film Waiting for Superman (WFS).

Created by Davis Guggenheim, the same producer who almost single-handedly helped Americans change our understanding and response to our environmental crisis though his award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, WFS is at the vortex of the stormy debate raging in our country today about what is wrong in education and how to fix it.

Oprah devoted two shows to it. Time magazine featured it as a cover story. Syndicated news programs and talks shows can’t stop talking about it, and community dialogues have been taking place all over the country, including many here in the Twin Cities, in response to its compelling premise.

Most people understand that although every child is born with unlimited potential, without the proper support throughout their lives from their family, their schools and their communities, their success in life could be severely imperiled. Of course, families, as the child’s first teacher, have the most important role to play, but it is equally true that the quality of a child’s school and the health of his or her community are also significant factors.

All three — family, school and community — make up the stool upon which a child’s future sits. WFS helps us to examine one leg of that stool, the schools.

WFS turns a long-held belief that “schools are failing because neighborhoods are failing” on its head and suggests that the opposite may be true — neighborhoods are failing because the schools are failing. It highlights community “dropout factories,” schools where over 40 percent of the kids don’t graduate on time, estimating that there are over 2,000 such schools throughout our country.

It also explodes the myth that America’s educational system is one of the best in the world. Consider these facts: Out of 28 reporting developed countries, America is now 20th in graduation rates; every 26 seconds, a kid drops out of high school — that’s 1.2 million a year; and almost half of all African American students drop out.

Dropouts are eight times more likely to go to prison, 50 percent less likely to vote, ineligible for 90 percent of all new jobs, more likely to need social welfare assistance, earn 40 cents for every dollar a college graduate earns, and continue the cycle of poverty.

To bring it all home for us, WFS brings us into the lives of five real children — Anthony, Bianca, Francisco, Daisy and Emily — who must gamble with their future by entering into a high-stakes lottery to flee their failing community schools, pipelines to the dropout factories. Their hope is to get into a great public charter school so that they can reach their full potential.

Four out of five of these children are poor with families that cannot afford a private or parochial school, and they are forced to attend their local schools unless they can get lucky. And what are some of their odds? At one school where two of the children in the film are trying to get in, Harlem Success Academy, they are among 792 students competing for only 40 open spots.

The lottery is real. It goes on throughout our country, and it happens in communities where there are only a few high-performing public schools with great demand but limited spots.

What’s most controversial about the movie is not that it suggests what all the research has already shown, that high-performing schools are the ones with high-performing teachers, because having an effective teacher makes a bigger difference in a child’s academic life than any other in-school variable. Nor is it that students placed with a high-performing teacher progress three times faster than those placed with low-performing teachers.

No, the controversy is that the movie had the audacity to take a really hard look at one factor that prevents getting high-performing teachers in front of the kids who need them most and removing ineffective ones — the tenure and seniority systems of teachers’ unions throughout this country. The subject has been off limits for so long that we don’t even know how to talk about it civilly or in mixed company.

Like it or not, we must talk about it and anything else that gets in the way of transforming education in this country and in our community. And then together we must act! We must act not against unions or for charters, but for great teachers and great schools.

Arguably no other community is harder hit by the realities of this debate than the Black community. With only 34 percent of African American students graduating in four years from Minneapolis public schools, I don’t see how any of us can miss this movie. See it, talk about it…and then act! The future of our community is in the classroom!

Beginning next week, Sondra Samuels will write a monthly column for the MSR. She welcomes reader responses to sondra@citypeace.org.