The Providence Effect

October 14, 2009

Recently I saw a documentary, The Providence Effect (2009, dir. Rollin Binzer), about Providence St. Mel, a school in Chicago where one hundred percent of the students go on to college. It was moving and inspiring, and yet the final question asked by the film—Why don’t all schools use the methods that led to Providence’s success?—left me thinking. Because the school is private, families pay tuition, parents are held to high standards of participation, and there is zero tolerance for student behaviors such as drug or gang involvement, it is difficult to imagine how all of Providence’s policies would transfer to public schools that are charged with educating everyone. Most of the teachers pictured were doing the right things, but I’ve observed many outstanding teachers using similar methods in public school classrooms in the valley where I live.

Paul Adams III, the school’s founder, provided part of the answer to the school’s success when he said “all of our students are motivated.” That matters. A lot. Ask any teacher if all of her or his students are motivated to learn once they are past the lower elementary grades and I will be surprised if the answer is yes. Most classrooms are a mix of the motivated and the unmotivated, those who want to be there and those who would love to be just about anywhere else. This is equally true for tuition-paying college students.

The students at Providence St. Mel believe in their own possibilities, but they also believe in the school and in the promises that if they work hard, they can and will achieve. Teachers and staff believe in the students and in the possibilities as well. That collective spirit of belief and purpose is often lacking in public schools, even beyond high school. Instead, a collective spirit of disbelief in public education permeates the culture. If adults who have been through the educational system do not believe in it, and denigrate and criticize it without acknowledging its strengths and accomplishments along with its failings, how can students be expected to believe that school will make a difference in their lives?

We have all heard and seen and read many stories about school. Schools and students and teachers and administrators and staff are fodder for comedy and easy targets for satire. (Think South Park, The House Bunny, Ferris Bueller, and hundreds of other images from kindergarden to college.) Often the worst about students and teachers is pictured because that’s where the drama and the laughs are. What cultural images of schools, teachers, and students do you remember? What messages, positive and negative, are sent by the images you recall?

I wish that it were possible for every student to be a part of a school where she or he could experience the collective spirit of purposeful and joyful learning. I wish that learning was cool and brainpower was celebrated. I also know that no matter how motivated any individual is, it is difficult to sustain personal enthusiasm in the face of systemic realities. Yet that is what each of us—student or teacher—has to do in order to translate the success of a school like Providence St. Mel into reality wherever we are. John Dewey (1934) called for an education system whose participants had “imaginative insight into possibilities.” Choosing to believe in the possibilities of education to change lives is a daily commitment whether you are a student deciding to actively participate in classes or a teacher refusing to be disheartened by the behaviors of students who don’t seem to care. Those choices, renewed daily, matter, and can help activate the “Providence Effect” in any school.

What can you do to help make your school a place where learning is celebrated daily?

Surely people of good will can come together to salvage the world.
• Betty Shabazz


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