Superman stirs the pot both nationwide and locally
BY TRAVIS BARKER
OCT. 14, 2010
Davis Guggenheim is once again tackling a complicated issue in his new documentary, “Waiting for Superman.” The director of “An Inconvenient Truth” had already transformed the education system into a two-sided debate filled with buzz words before it opened, which is exactly Guggenheim’s goal.
“Early on I showed this movie to Randi Weingarten, the head of the Teacher’s Union, and we had a long conversation afterwords about what we disagreed about, what we agreed about,” said Guggenheim in a telephone interview.
“I asked her to write a chapter in the book. I said, ‘Say what you want. Disagree, but stay a part of the conversation,’ and that is what is happening all across the country,” said Guggenheim.
The conversation found its way to Julka Hall on Sept. 30 thanks to Thomas Dlugopolsky, a Paramount Pictures intern, and Anne Galletta, an associate professor in the College of Education, who recently organized a panel discussion that brought together voices from a variety of perspectives in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.
“The movie has become a catalyst for this kind of conversation, but we also wanted an opportunity to hear some voices that critiqued the movie for not covering sufficiently other aspects of public education,” said Galletta.
The panel discussion included the teacher’s union, a parent from the Neighborhood Leadership Institute, and some recent CMSD graduates.
“We also wanted to understand more deeply what the producer was trying to convey through his emphasis on the situation of families looking for effective schools for their kids. That is a really serious problem,” said Galetta about the message of the documentary.
“One comes away from the scene of the lottery (in the Waiting for Superman trailer) disgusted and you can draw two conclusions: one is that we need more charters, and the other conclusion is that this is not the way to do public education, period, “ Galetta surmised.
“To be creating a limited number of schools that are available to a limited number of students is not a solution,” said Galetta.
Commenting on the way the education community reacted to the documentary, Galetta expressed a desire to fix a broken system.
‘’I think they agree that something needs to happen, but I do not think they agree with the solution that is promoted in the film,” said Galetta.
The discussion about the solutions offered in the film featured some common themes from different panel members, including the need to transform neighborhoods before transforming schools can be a reality.
Terrence Robinson, deputy to the chief of transformation in the CMSD, is involved in the implementation of Dr. Eugene Sanders’ plan to reform the school district and dig out of the projected $50 million deficit. Robinson stressed the economic reasons for plugging the educational divide at the discussion.
“I believe the opportunity that was presented with the academic transformation plan was the best opportunity to try and revive this area and the region,” said Robinson.
“From a business perspective, this may be the greatest economic issue we face,” Robinson said of a failing education system.
Community involvement and local business connections with schools were popular ways offered up to transform communities on the way to reforming schools.
“It is important for all of us to engage in successful education for all students, because it is directly related to our daily living in our communities,” said panel member Adrienne Hatten, the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland program officer for education.
“When we talk about academic success we need to talk about community transformation because the two go hand in hand, particularly when we want our students to return and have an option to live their entire lives in the community,” said Hatten.
Community leaders have long known the issues they face and also that the road to improving the quality of life is paved with complications.
“We have a community that has severe needs and we need to figure out how to move forward,” said Hatten.
“Where there is a community with an academic transformation plan, there is an opportunity to get the right people to the table and talk about (community) transformation,” said Hatten.
The discussion also had a unique component than the conversations going on nationally. CMSD’s transformation plan was still a fresh wound for those affected by school closings and teacher lay-offs.
During the audience participation part of the discussion, Vannessa Jones emotionally asked why the actions to close schools and lay off teachers was made prior to the call for public input by the district.
“My concern is what everyone is talking about, the need for community involvement, but I didn’t see that in the planning stages,” said Jones.
"I see it now- to get the community involved in what was done to them- but I didn’t see students being asked what they thought about their schools, I didn’t see teachers given the opportunity to critique what was going on in the system. It was pretty much, ‘this is what it is going to be’,” said Jones about how the transformation plan was designed and implemented.
The people affected by the decisions to close schools may come around more slowly than if the plan had been implemented with greater tact and inclusive planning.
“When you talk about community effort, and you are pretty much slapping the community in the face, you are creating a disconnect, and then it is harder to build a bridge back,” said Jones.
“You are completely correct, during the planning stages there was not a whole lot of community involvement there,” replied Robinson on behalf of the district.
“Honestly, the district is broken,” said Robinson.
“When you have a 54% graduation rate, you have a broken system and everybody can take a share of the blame,” continued Robinson.
“(Eugine) Sanders was in the position that he needed to make a decision as a leader and without talking to everyone,” said Robinson.
Despite the unilateral approach to the transformation plan, the district understands that any success depends on how well the community embraces the changes.
“The plan is there, but if we do not get community involvement this plan has no legs. I apologize that we didn’t (talk to people) on the front end, but we have a plan that looked at the best practices and lessons learned from around the country, and I think it is a very good plan,” continued Robinson.
Ultimately, charter schools are nothing new and lessons learned from the successful ones have been incorporated into regular classrooms. The common thread in all of the success stories is the opportunity for educators to deviate from the norm and try new things.
Galletta’s feeling is that the programs that are implementing successful techniques cultivated in charter schools into public schools are overlooked. Citing examples in Boston and New York that have experimented with different ways to issue standardized tests and work around common issues in low income communities, Galetta mentioned that the red tape involved with the bureaucracies like the school district and the teachers unions can make it difficult to try unique and individualized methods inside the classroom. The successful cases share the commonality of being able to work outside the regulations.
Those hamstrung by such regulations were also among the panel. Meryl Johnson, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, expressed the frustration at the problems standardized tests create.
“I have ninth graders who cannot read cursive writing because when they were in second grade, where they were supposed to learn that skill, teachers were pressured to teach (standardized) tests and cursive writing was thrown out,” explained Johnson.
Johnson gave other examples of the trials a public school teacher faces, like buying books and other supplies for her class out of pocket on an inadequate salary.
“To attract and obtain the teachers that we need, schools must offer a compensation that reflects the respect the community should have for us as professionals,” said Johnson.
The discussion ended because of time constraints, but the conversation is far from over.