Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Waiting for Superman" - See the Movie

Our public education system is broken, but fixing it is possible. That’s the message of Waiting for Superman, a new documentary that I went to see last Wednesday night in Chicago.

I think a lot of people will become emotionally moved by watching this movie. The film's creators hope that leads more people to get involved in public education issues.

To me, “Waiting for Superman” was 90 minutes of “preaching to the choir” showing the costs of poverty, the costs of prison vs education, the impact on the American economy caused by our education system falling behind those in other countries.

Its conclusion was “better teachers” are needed.

Its message was, “there are lots of parents who really want to send their kids to good schools, but there are not enough good public schools, and not enough open slots in good charter schools.”

If you visit this section of the Tutor/Mentor Connection library, you can find links to many web sites with more information on poverty, poorly performing school, the drop-out crisis, etc.

I’ve been reading articles like this for the past 35 years. Why? Because I became personally involved with an inner city boy as a volunteer in a non-school tutor/mentor program and I stayed involved for the past three decades. The longer I became involved, the more I was exposed to articles about poverty, and the more personally committed I became to helping the kids I was working with.

Because I was leading a program, not just serving as a tutor, I had to step back a level, and think of ways to recruit kids and volunteers at the beginning of the school year, and keep them connected to each other throughout the year. Because I was a volunteer with limited time, I had to innovate ways to motivate other volunteers to share part of the leader load.

Because of my workplace experiences in corporate advertising at the Montgomery Ward Corporation, I began to understand how mass communications could be used to support groups of 200 or more volunteers. I began to understand how computers could be used to build attendance sheets and to analyze participation patterns. I also began to see how media coverage of poverty might draw a lot of attention for a short time, but it did not provide the type of consistent support that retail stores need to build a customer base, and that non profits need to build a volunteer and donor support system.

I would not have been at Waiting for Superman if I had not been part of a non-school tutor/mentor program and if I had not been using the internet to connect people involved with tutoring/mentoring in Chicago with similar programs in other cities, and if I were not building a library of information that people could use to become better informed of ways they could become involved to help kids from poverty move through school and into jobs.

After I saw the movie, I visited the Waiting for Superman web site at http://www.waitingforsuperman.com . I encourage you to do the same, and then take a group of friends to see the movie.

The web site is intended to act as an intermediary, drawing people to a GET INVOLVED page, and pointing them to other web sites where they could learn more about the problem and become part of the solution. It divides into two sections:

Take Action: Help a School

In this section the message is “act locally”…meaning support your local school. This is good advise, but it won’t do much to change the performance of inner city schools located in high poverty neighborhoods unless more people from beyond poverty are giving time, talent and dollars every day to help people who do live in poverty neighborhoods.

This is one of the shortfalls of the movie that I saw. Most of the young people portrayed in the film were minority kids living in inner city neighborhoods of big cities like LA, Houston and New York City. The kids featured in the movie attend public schools in poverty areas, and have a parent, or guardian, who would pay for better education if they had the money.

They might also do more to show kids the importance of college, if they had a college degree themselves. But that’s what poverty is all about. It’s people who don’t have high paying jobs, college degrees, etc. How can they be providing the dollars to help teachers? How can they find the time to be mentors? How can they model jobs and college if they have not finished school themselves?

The solutions proposed in this section don’t show how people who don’t live in high poverty might be personally involved in helping youth and families who do. The actions proposed don’t take in consideration the geography of poverty and poor schools and don’t provide a road map for Superman to go from neighborhoods of affluence to neighborhoods of poverty.

This section does include a “be a mentor” link that points to the web site of the National Mentoring Partnership. However, it does not say “be a donor” so more mentoring programs might have the staff and infrastructure to add more volunteers, and provide high quality mentoring to those they already have. This is a missed opportunity in my estimation.

Fix the System

This is the second section in the Take Action section. There are links in this section that focus on education standards, the Dept. of Education Race to the Top competition and getting involved with a local school board.

There is also a link to a Dept. of Education Innovation Portal, where anyone can submit ideas and connect with others who have submitted ideas. This has potential. I introduced the Tutor/Mentor Connection and posted a request for help in funding our maps and technology. I’ll let you know if I get any responses.

There’s also a section titled “Join a discussion” which points to the Edutopia community forum where people can join in discussion with others on education issues. I also joined this forum and introduced myself. I did not see any section that was focused on helping non-school organizations be available around poorly performing schools, so I emailed Edutopia to suggest they add such a section.

In total, I think Waiting for Superman has a lot of potential for increasing the number of people motivated to "fix the public education system", but the web site is missing some major opportunities.

Understand the issues and opportunities –
I think there are a broader range of web sites where you can learn more about the problems of our education system, and the poverty causing some schools to perform less well than others, and potential solutions. A starting point in your learning would be the Tutor/Mentor Connection library, where we point to more than 1600 resources such as these in our Research and Resources category.

Volunteer involvement, expanding the number of people who personally care.
I think the movie, and the forums, are efforts to engage people who care in discussions and actions that lead to solutions. However, these don’t provide enough entry points to get adults who don’t live in poverty personally connected with youth and families. In a recent study titled "Untapped Potential: Filling the Promise of Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Bigs and Littles they Represent, the authors point out how there were more than 240,000 active BBBS volunteers in 2009, and that many of them have become more concerned about the challenges facing the kids they mentor, because of their involvement as a mentor.

Thus, strategies that encourage more volunteering in well organized volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs would be ways to increase the number of people watching movies like Waiting for Superman, and spending time to “fix the system”.

However, for that to happen a more consistent flow of operating dollars needs to be going to every single program so they can recruit and retain leaders who can effectively mentor the mentors so they stay involve, build this level of empathy, then grow to be leaders who reach into their own business, alumni, faith and personal networks to get even more people involved.

This is what the Tutor/Mentor Connection focuses on. We're not yet listed as one of the resources on the Waiting for Superman web site. We're not yet invited to any planning meetings by CEO Ron Huberman of Chicago Public Schools. We’re not on their radar.

However, that can change. If you know about our work, or read this blog, pass on this message to leaders in your own network, the way Sara Caldwell did on this web site.

We can bring supermen and women to inner city neighborhoods by what we do to encourage people who have the talent and the resources to help this strategy grow in Chicago and other cities.

Thank you to Waiting for Superman for helping draw attention to this issue.

No comments: