Mama Madison: Getting kids thinking about education

"Waiting for Superman" provides a teachable moment

As a mom who does part-time work for the Foundation for Madison's Public Schools, I saw it as my professional as well as parental duty to see the much-hyped documentary Waiting for Superman. So I went, with a group of friends, to see what filmmaker Davis Guggenheim had to say about the state of the American public school system. Many of the criticisms I had read in advance of the film are fair. I doubt Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, is really made of Kryptonite and I am sure even Metropolis has had its fair share of failed charter schools.

But the film masterfully paints the heartbreaking picture it sets out to -- one of too many youths being cheated out of the American Dream by the failure of their public education. The film's narrative revolves around five of these kids, bright and adorable -- and dead serious about getting a better education. Their parents believe they can achieve and are committed to doing right by them, regardless of the sacrifices that may entail. And this gave me pause.

Do my kids even realize that there are parents out there that have to work two jobs, take the subway an hour each way, and leap tall buildings in a single bound in order to give their children what my kids are pretty much getting right up the street?

So last Sunday I took my 13-year-old son to the 11:15 a.m. showing at Sundance. What would a middle class white kid have to say about failing schools in some of the nations poorest neighborhoods? Would it make him think differently about the school he was attending?

His immediate post-film concern was that this was my way of telling him I had entered him in the lottery for the SEED School featured in the movie -- a weekday boarding school in inner city D.C. Once I assured him we were out of district, we could get down to talking about his reaction to the film. In all, I think he found it interesting, even though he couldn't fully relate to the lives of the featured kids.

He had lots of great, unanswered questions: How does teacher tenure benefit students? Why doesn't the film show any of the non-charter public schools that are doing well? Was poverty the reason that most of the poorest performing public schools in Wisconsin are clustered along lower Lake Michigan? But, when I asked him what he found most surprising about the film, his answer echoed mine -- how incredibly motivated the kids and their parents were about doing whatever it took to get a better education. They weren't just waiting for a superhero; they were actively looking for phone booths.

Next Tuesday, the MMSD is coming together with community partners including MTI and the Urban League to host a public conversation on education and reform in Capitol City. While we are not South Central, Madison has its fair share of issues. It will take more than the simple formula presented at movie's end to tackle big issues like the achievement gap and school funding.

Maybe it is best the district is reaching out, not waiting for Superman. I'm not even sure phone booths exist anymore. But yes, I will still be slightly disappointed if Superintendent Dan Nerad doesn't show up to Tuesday's night meeting in tights and a cape. Talk about a conversation-starter.

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