A cure for ills of public schools

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 29, 2010 - 6:55 AM

Director Davis Guggenheim talks about his sure-to-be-controversial new film focusing on successful charter schools.

Davis Guggenheim's first feature film was "The First Year," documenting the lives of new teachers entering the Los Angeles public school system. Beginning on the first day of school in September 1999, it was a verité-style portrait of young idealists battling the odds to make a difference in the lives of their inner-city students.

Today Guggenheim drives his kids to private school in Los Angeles. On the way, he passes three underperforming public schools.

While his first film simplified the issues and portrayed the teachers' lives as heroic, his latest, "Waiting for Superman," depicts teachers unions as impediments to needed change and protectors of instructors who have lost the will to teach. The film won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Guggenheim will be on hand to present it at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Theatres at Mall of America as it opens the Twin Cities Film Festival. It begins a theatrical run at the Landmark Uptown on Friday.

"It's not enough that my kids have a good education. How about other people's children?" Guggenheim said by phone last week. To that end he created another consciousness-raising film. Putting human faces on the issue, he followed five students and their families through the lottery selection process that offered them a slot in their district's desirable charter schools.

Guggenheim, 46, grew up apprenticing his father, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Charles Guggenheim. After graduating from Rhode Island's Brown University, he landed directing jobs on high-profile television shows including "NYPD Blue," "Party of Five" and "ER." His documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," won the Academy Award in 2007.

Blueprints for success

"Waiting for Superman" draws its title from Geoffrey Canada, the school reformer and president of Harlem Children's Zone, an ambitious social experiment that provides educational, medical and social services for many of New York City's neediest children. In the film Canada recalls weeping the day his mother told him Superman wasn't real, because that meant no one would one day fly into their poor neighborhood and rescue them. Canada and other charter school directors are presented as visionaries whose innovative efforts -- longer school days, six-day weeks, demanding academic standards -- offer the blueprint for a public school renaissance.

In conversation, the director concedes that the issue is not so cut-and-dried. "People are looking for that quick solution," he said. "I don't think charters are the silver bullet. Only one in five are doing work that's better than district schools. And there are a bunch that do worse than district schools. Charters are a very new experiment. And part of innovation is seeing failure. It's the high-performing charters that hold the secrets of success. And we want to take those ingredients for success and put them into every school."

One of the film's heroes, Michelle Rhee, school superintendent in Washington, D.C., criticizes a system -- of unions, bureaucracies and political donations -- that she says is designed to maximize harmony among adults rather than deliver results for children.

"The film is about saying that all the adults who are protecting their interests are hurting their interests, and until they get off that position we're never going to fix our schools," Guggenheim said.

The film doesn't note that most nations whose students outperform ours have teachers unions, nor that almost 21 percent of children in the United States live below the poverty level.

Helping poorest students

"The difference between now and 10 years ago when I made my first documentary is we now know what works," Guggenheim said. "The charter schools are public schools, and they often get less funding than the district schools beside them," though many receive financing through private and philanthropic donations. "They can work outside the rules and restrictions of the system. High-performing charters, not all charters but high-performing charters, are going in these tough neighborhoods and proving you can do it."

That's one reason why Guggenheim is excited about discussing his film after its Twin Cities premiere, he said.

"When I go to a new city and see a full audience, it's a thrill that they're interested. And when you come to cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul where there's a tradition of reform, liberalism and civic pride, a city that really cares about how it treats every member, that's exciting. It's where the charter school movement began and it's at the heart of this sense that the city should take care of all of its citizens. That's exciting because the theme of this movie is, Shouldn't we fight for every kid to have a great education?"

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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