Not Everyone Is Waiting for Superman

A much-heralded new film is shining a needed spotlight on underperforming public schools, but the news isn’t all bad. Education reformer Danielle Moss Lee explains that there’s excellence within the system, too.

09.24.10 1:56 AM ET

Heading a nonprofit college success program like the Harlem Educational Activities Fund in New York City sometimes leaves me feeling like a munchkin in Education Oz. I know from the very beginning of the story that Dorothy has she what needs all along. Unfortunately, she cannot hear my voice or see me waving my arms trying to signal to her that she doesn’t need to go traipsing down a yellow brick road to find out how to get more Black and Latino kids into and graduated from college. The answer is on 125th Street. I am no stranger to the desperate angst and anxiety of the parents whose journeys you will follow in the much-talked-about and anticipated Waiting for Superman documentary. As a student, I attended 11 schools between kindergarten and 12th grade. Yes, 11. And, before you ask, I was not a military brat. The truth is that my mother was trying to get my education “right.” She knew I was smart, curious, and had potential. She also believed I was entitled to an academically rigorous schooling experience that was nurturing, culturally relevant and affirming, and built on a foundation of high expectations.

Her determination to see me realize my full potential took me on an odyssey from school to school, public and private, in the U.S. and in the Caribbean. If public education had been delivering on its promise as the great democratic equalizer, that odyssey would have been unnecessary.

In the end, though, the glue was not school for me. I had some great teachers and not-so-great teachers along the way. But my mother was my first teacher. She got a master’s degree in Library Science (yes, there really is such a thing) from Columbia University in 1970—the same year my father opened his own photography studio in Harlem. They were young, hopeful and believed that the civil-rights movement had achieved its mission.

I want to encourage everyone to approach these reforms with boldness, courage, and caution.

After their separation, my mother spent the early ‘70s working as a research librarian at Rutgers University. She struggled to find balance between work and childcare and taught me to read early so I could keep myself occupied. I spent countless hours running among the stacks in the university library and reading books that were far above grade level. When she got a mid-level corporate job, she spent most of her disposable income on “lessons,” “culture,” and, occasionally, tuition. Nevertheless, every so often when it seemed I was on a roll, my mother would decide that my school wasn’t quite right. There wasn’t enough homework. The teachers seemed ambivalent, or did not recognize my talents. The curriculum was lackluster.

Then came Mrs. Lawson, a retired teacher and family friend of Bajan descent—her people knew our people back in Barbados, etc.—with a ferocious appetite for what she termed “the basics.” For a good three years, I spent my weekends in her daughters’ old bedroom in the South Bronx studying and learning in spite of whatever school I was attending. My success was no accident.

The most compelling thing about my story isn’t me. The most compelling aspect of my story is my mother, my family, and the community who all stood for me, and who I could become, long before schools did. Of course, I know that 11 schools wasn’t the only path I could have taken to Swarthmore College and Columbia University. As a New York City public-school parent, I know that pit that settles at the bottom of your stomach when you’re looking for a school you hope will get your children to where you know they can go. You’ll see evidence of that worry on the faces of the parents in Waiting for Superman. Last year, during the arduous high-school application process, I prayed my daughter would get accepted to an academically sound high school. She prayed she’d be safe from bullies and make new friends. So far, we both won. I know many families who weren’t that lucky.

Waiting for Superman has succeeded in accelerating the argument for more immediate solutions to what ails public education, and that is a good thing. I welcome the opportunity to engage in rigorous debate. Nevertheless, I want to encourage everyone to approach these reforms with boldness, courage, and caution. The movie focuses an imbalanced spotlight on how the current system traps low-income and minority students. It gives the impression that everyone in the current system is asleep at the wheel (you will see teachers in the infamous “NYC Rubber Room” asleep… literally) and fails to recognize any traditional public schools with a proven record of accomplishment for educating young people across lines of race and class.

Excellence does exist within this system. We need to celebrate our gains and victories while we continue to put fire to the feet of dead weight. We have to remember that this movie has a particular point of view that shows up as a shameless plug for charter schools as the most viable and immediate solution to providing disenfranchised families with educational options. We should also accept that the circumstances that created that point of view are real. Time and time again, the data on the opportunity gap between rich and poor students, and black and white students, tell a story of embarrassing disparities in grade-level proficiency, high-school graduation rates, so-called risky behaviors, special-education referrals, college going rates, college completion rates, and the list goes on.

In our desperation to give all the kids in this movie—and others across this country with similar stories—a fighting chance, let’s give traditional public schools that are effectively closing the opportunity gap their due. Let’s use what we know about the link between poverty, joblessness, access to health care, systemic racism and classism, and community stability to make sure that all of our schools have the educational and social-service supports to succeed. Let’s depoliticize education so that our best efforts have time to take root and bear fruit. Let’s continue to support high-performing charter schools with a commitment to 21st-century skills and diversity that reaches beyond the student body and touches everyone from the faculty to organizational leadership. Let’s define performance benchmarks and accountability measures for charter schools that include rigorous review of financial models, scrutiny of compensation for charter school executives, increased admissions for English language learners and special-education students, and improved transparency across the board. Make sure that communities have a real voice in charter-school governance.

Finally, let’s make sure we don’t count well-established community-based organizations and after-school programs out of the philanthropic equation in our haste to fund things that are shiny and new. Thousands of New York City public-school students who do not attend public charter schools receive high-quality college-access support from organizations that have been serving disadvantaged communities and getting results for decades. The after-school field’s presence on the educational landscape in this city has made public education better.

HEAF serves approximately 500 students each year through our college pipeline programs from 6th grade to senior year of college. If we had the philanthropic investment, we would serve more students. We have been doing this work for over 20 years with sound leadership and a research-based model that works. Rest assured that while I continue my efforts to expand our presence in New York City, there will be at least 500 kids who will not be Waiting for Superman this year.