Monday, September 28, 2009

"The Providence Effect": a private school gets inner city kids to colelge

Here’s a great indie documentary about “the kids”. Specifically, kids from grades K-12 from the inner cities in Chicago getting the change to go to a private school called Providence St. Mel (link) (there is a second school) that has almost 100% college admission. The film is “The Providence Effect” (link here), directed by Rollin Binzer, from Slowhand Releasing (and production company with the ironic name “Dinosaurs of the Future”).

The history of the school goes back to the late 70s, when the Archdiocese wanted to close it and then sold it at below market price to ambitious investors. Much of the film shows principal Paul Adams and administrator Jeanette DiBella. There are plenty of classroom scenes, especially of mathematics, including integral calculus (integrating trigonometric functions, hard to motivate, pretty advanced for high school), trigonometry, and matrix algebra (or linear algebra). All grades are shown, and the classes always emphasize heavy participation. DiBella enforces a policy that kids cannot work on another class’s homework in a class, and gets after a young white male math teacher for not watching each kid more closely doing classwork. (In ninth grade algebra, I remember that we had “classworks” that were graded as quizzes – like ten factoring problems.) In another scene, a young male is shown conducting a second grade class on language skills, and already they are talking about college. In still another elementary English class, students learn to spell some less common words like "cardigan" and "shawl"(probably from "The September Issue"). In kindergarten, kids sit on a rug and interact with a teacher who guides them into behavior and socialization skills, much as I saw in public schools. Some kids arrive at school not knowing how to hold a pencil or sit still.

Almost no one pays full private school tuition; for many kids, several extended family members share reduced tuition. Parents must come to conferences once every two weeks, and even must sign up for community service, or get fined.

The film does make me regret the breakdown of my own substitute teaching experience from 2004-2007, where there were discipline problems with certain kinds of students (in northern Virginia). At Providence, classroom management and discipline is built deep into the program. Teachers must roam and engage students continuously.

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