Waiting for Superman.

by Meredith O’Brien


Here are some of the thoughts that were running through my head as I wiped away tears and the credits rolled at the conclusion of Waiting for Superman, a documentary about how vast numbers of public schools are failing our children:


This is an outrage . . . I can’t believe children’s educational futures are determined by an actual lottery . . . The dismal national school statistics are appalling . . . We spend so much time, energy and money trying to help our kids be better at sports and make the travel basketball team or the top soccer team, why don’t we do the same with education?


This documentary is an enraging thing to behold, especially if you’re a parent of a child attending a public school, because then, it’s personal. My three children attend public schools in my small suburban town in the Boston metro area and they should count themselves lucky because the gripes I have about their school district are nothing as compared to the dreary portrait this film painted of the overall state of public education in this country, as student achievement continues to slide well behind other developed nations, particularly for children who live in poverty. The debate on how to remedy this situation unfortunately has, prior to the release of this film, been stagnant, mired in debates with teachers’ unions over things like tenure, the inability to fire under-performing faculty and whether failing schools should or could be shuttered.


Consider Maria, the mother of a Bronx first grader, Francisco, who was featured in the movie. Francisco’s teacher wouldn’t return Maria’s calls or notes requesting a parent-teacher conference to discuss why after-school reading program instructors said Francisco could read well, yet in first grade, his teacher said he was not faring well. Maria, who believes her son’s school is falling very short of his needs, spent nearly all her moments in this movie applying her son to a charter school (one of several she’d applied to) and fretting about Francisco’s future.


Then there were the parents of Los Angeles fifth grader Daisy, who wants to become a doctor. No one from her family has ever completed high school, which makes the fact that the school she was slated to attend for sixth grade is called “one of the worst performing schools in Los Angeles” even more disheartening. According to the film, 6 out of 10 students from Daisy’s neighborhood do not secure high school diplomas, hence her parents’ desperate hope that she would get into a charter school that could help prepare her for college and move her closer to getting the opportunity to become the doctor she aspires to be.


Francisco and Daisy represented just two of five children who, along with their families, were spotlighted in the film as eager to land spots in charter schools which they saw as their only life rafts so the children could avoid the fate that befalls most students attending those schools, which is not making it to graduation and losing ground educationally.


We are actually going through the whole public school system thing right now.. We live in a "changing" area in Chicago. The neighborhood school my daughter should start attending preschool at next year is one of the worst in the city. Only 53% of the students exceed or meet the state standard and out of that only 3% exceed it. When compared to the Chicago public schools averages of 68% and 13%, respectively. We are applying to about 11 schools outside of this neighborhood and yes, there will be a random lottery. If all else fails we will have to lie about our address or send her to private school, even if that means I'll have to put my studies aside to get a job and help daddy pay for it. It's sad that politics have changed the face of our school system and our children are the ones suffering!


What we need to do is find ways to fix the system entirely. I do think teacher pay and union structure is one of several areas that has to be included. I'm not even saying do away with the union, good teachers should be economically rewarded; teachers should be protected from adminstrations with vendettas. However teachers do not deserve lock-step pay raises just for showing up each day and as salaries rise to the level of most other knowledge workers, it gets harder to justify a lush pension.
Here in Chicago where charters are all the rage, we don't see a vast difference in many of them from the local neighborhood; and more I'm convinced that it is because of the neighborhood it draws from. Where we live on the North side we've a number of public, non-charter, schools that have gone from dimsal to wow over a 5-10 year period because of parental involvement. On-site afterschool programs blossom, "Friends of" groups form to advocate for the school and suddenly people want to go to your school from out of the area.
But the key is attracting and keeping involved parents. And not necessarily those who are at home during the day. There are many jobs we have found that can be done outside school hours, it just takes people willing to think creatively about them.