The Providence Effect

October 8, 2009 · Print This Article

I live in Chicago, I work with kids, and I am one of the many people who are aware that the public education system (in Chicago and elsewhere) is doing a huge disservice to our youth. That said, I was very curious when I saw the trailer for The Providence Effect and it stated that a school on Chicago’s west side had gotten 100% of its graduates into four year colleges this year…and has been doing so for the past 30. Years. Damn.

I got into a nice early bird matinee, hoping I would be the only person in the theater, and was until a gaggle of high school girls and their teacher decided to join me. They did shut up when the film started, thank god, but there was quite a bit of talk about homecoming. Maybe it was all this youthful estrogen in the room that actually made me a little teary towards the end of the film.

The streak of sending every graduate to a college started when Paul J. Adams III began working at Providence St. Mel School in Garfield Park, first as a guidance counsellor and then as principal. He came to Chicago after he was “blacklisted” in Alabama for being involved in the Civil Rights movement. Basically, the school relies on discipline, teachers who are passionate about what they do, and a hands on administration. There is some narrative arch, sort of, about how the Catholic archdioces sought to close the school, and the Baptist Paul Adams ended up buying the building so he could continue what he was trying to do.

But this is an art blog, so lets get serious. The film was very straightforward. There was no conflict to be resolved, no sudden twist of fate, just a bunch of educators talking about what they do. That said, it did seem fascinating that our public schools are so epically failing while this one system is succeeding so incredibly, and everything that the people involved with it were saying seemed so damned simple. Have competent teachers. Excite the students. Set the bar high. Expect and celebrate excellence.I think that the momentum of the school also helps set the pace for the students; I mean, who wants to be the one kid who doesn’t get into a college?

The actual filming of the feature was mediocre at best. The talking heads were fine, well lit, interesting backgrounds. But interspersed between these interviews was reality-tv-esque shots of jumpy handheld hallways and classrooms. The camera seemed almost intrusive in the classes, and incredibly awkward. While discussing gearing children towards college from a young age, a kindergardener is attempting to anwer a question when a camera swoops into his face for a close up and he struggles to finish his sentence. Nice one, jerk. In another incredibly uncomfortable moment, the assistant principal is catches a student doing *gasp*homework from Spanish while in math class, and the cameraman practically falls running over to catch her handing the book over, head hung in shame. The soundtrack was all inspirational pump up music that at one point reminded me of “Eye of the Tiger”, and added a significant cheesy factor to the overall experience. Also, at least a good 30 minutes could have been shaved off of the total time.

If you want to feel good about kids in one school in a bad neighborhood being serious about their education, and maybe cry a little, this is the film for you. Just try not to think about the hundred and something thousand other schools that are completely in the shitter.

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