I’ve now had the opportunity to view “Waiting for Superman” more than once. At the beginning of the film, Geoffrey Canada, the charismatic leader of the Harlem Children’s Zone, shared how as an avid comic book reader he believed that Superman was coming to “rescue” him and others in his neighborhood from the circumstance of their lives. He speaks candidly of being incredibly disappointed when his mother explained that Superman was not real—the implication being that if Geoffrey wanted rescuing, he needed to figure out how to do that for himself. He did, and today, for many children and families in Harlem, Geoffrey Canada has become Superman. His commitment to providing comprehensive services to youth and their families, cradle to career, is making a difference. Whether parents begin the journey with their child in Baby College or join at the pre-school or Kindergarten levels, these families become part of the HCZ family of services, and the target of focused prevention and intervention programs to help young people make it through the K-12 education system and beyond successfully. The HCZ is an example of the concept, “it takes a village” in action, and is focused on positive results for youth.
Of the youngsters in the film, only one was selected on the first round of the lottery for the few available spots in high-performing charter schools, and a second was brought in from the waiting list toward the beginning of the school year. The three others returned to their neighborhood schools. The odds, at least for those youngsters in the film, were 2:5 or 40% chance of being selected to attend one of the charter schools, and I cannot think that this is anywhere close to real odds which are much, much lower, as there are so many children applying for each and every slot that is open. But even if we took the film odds, you have a 40% chance of making it in which means you have a 60% chance of NOT making it. So what about the 60%? The answer lies in strengthening and supporting the reform of K-12 education.
It is easy to target K-12 public education as the villain in this piece, but I think that this would be short-sighted. It appears that there is plenty of “blame” to spread over a variety of canvases. And anyway, what good does playing the “Blame Game” really do. Each year, children in this country are not receiving an education that will help them to be competitive in the global work environment of the 21st century. They have more stress and fewer skills to deal with that stress and to exercise good judgment, critical thinking, and sound decision making. To move the reform agenda along maybe all of us reviewing the work of Peter Senge in his book, the Fifth Discipline, when he writes about the importance of asking the 5 Whys to get to the root of a challenge, would be helpful. Senge cautions that it is easiest, in going through this exercise to focus on people and place blame rather than get to the systemic changes that need to be made. So I would propose that we begin with the question, “Why is it that K-12 public education is only providing a high-quality education for 32% of its students?” and then, instead of simply blaming the schools, probe more deeply to find solutions to support the transformation of public education into a viable, results-driven opportunity for youth. Ten years ago education results were dismal:
• Only 70% of all students in public high schools graduate, and only 32% of all students leave high school qualified to attend four-year colleges.
• Only 51% of all black students and 52% of all Hispanic students graduate, and only 20% of all black students and 16% of all Hispanic students leave high school college-ready.
We can do better than this if we will accept the challenge to be Superman, in one community, in one neighborhood, in one school. There is a line toward the end of the movie, An American President, when the lead character (Michael Douglas playing the role of the U.S. President) states, “I’ve been so busy trying to keep my job, that I forgot to do my job.” It’s time to do our job and put aside all of the differences that prevent us from doing our job…providing young people with an education that will prepare them to grow-up to be adults who are productive citizens of this country.