Touching documentary shows struggle for quality public education

It seems almost ironic, sitting in the pristine USC School of Cinematic Arts at one of the nation’s top universities to watch a film propagating the devastating condition of New York City’s educational system.

Crossed fingers · The four families in the documentary await the results of the lottery for a chance to attend one of few charter schools. - Photos courtesy of Great Curve

The Lottery, directed by Madeleine Sackler, was screened Wednesday evening by Outside the Box [Office] and will be available on DVD Tuesday. It documents the battle four families have to wage in order to gain what most students at USC might take for granted — the opportunity to get a decent education.

This film is not for the light-hearted. It’s an eye-opener, a slap in the face for any of us who might have skipped one too many classes.

Out of the 3,400 families who entered their children into a charter school’s lottery in Harlem, the film focuses on four — Ameenah, the spunky little girl who proudly translates for her deaf mother; Christian, the sensitive child who has not seen his mother for two years; Greg Jr., who visits his father in jail; and Eric Jr., the tiny break-dancer with a loving, involved family.

All four families live in the Harlem or Bronx, where 58 percent of fourth graders are “functionally illiterate.” It is not news that the United States is failing dismally with its public educational system, but the film draws emotion through the personal lives of these four young children.

The big event in the film is the wait for the lottery that will determine the 475 lucky children that will attend the Harlem Success Academy, one of the few charter schools in Harlem. That means six out of seven families that entered the lottery left disappointed, forced to settle for the drastically low-performing public schools in their district.

The attraction of charter schools is that — though they too are free of charge as part of a public school system — they are unfettered by the contracts of the teacher’s union and therefore able to focus more on the child’s performance rather than meeting a set of requirements. This also means that underperforming teachers can be fired, which is rare in non-charter schools because it costs $250,000 of taxpayer money to fire a teacher in New York public schools. Instead, charter schools are held accountable and must live up to their standards. When they fail to do so, they are closed down.

But the four families aren’t as interested in the fine details of the charter school system as they are in the positive results: The kids are actually learning. According to one Harlem Success Academy parent, his daughter who goes to charter school is teaching her older sibling who attends public school, how to read.

To these parents, this little accomplishment means more than the ability to read a whole sentence. It means that a whole new door of opportunities is being opened to their children — chances they never had, paths they were never shown and dreams they had never dared to dream.

“Nobody taught me which direction to go,” said Greg Jr.’s father, tearing up. “Nobody taught me the right thing to do.”

Instead, he turned to the neighborhood kids to teach him how to steal and sell drugs, landing him 25 years in a correctional facility. He fears that his own son could turn out like him.

In one chilling interview, a woman explains how one corporation used data on the number of failing black, male fourth graders to determine how many prison cells should be built by the time they graduated from high school.

Despite facing such statistics, Greg Jr.’s father hopes this trend of misdirection will stop with himself, and he pins all his hope on Harlem Success Academy to help his only so.

But many just as passionately disagree. In one particularly dramatic public forum discussing whether Harlem Success Academy should open another branch in place of a failing Harlem public school, insults start flying. Things get personal.

“You are not welcome here,” one mother snarled, holding her daughter’s hand. “You will come over my dead body!”

According to the documentary, the teacher’s union operates heavily behind this opposition, even funding other groups to stage protests on its behalf. It turns the children’s education into a political issue, strong-arming Democratic politicians into fostering negative impressions on charter schools.

The film does manage to show a few reasons behind these protests: There are claims that the charter schools are arrogant and disrespectful; the lottery is unfair and elitist; they are a dangerous privatization of education; they will disfranchise the community. But for the most part, the film largely neglects getting into the details behind the protestors, thus portraying a one-sided negative view of the opponents.

Instead, it gives more incentive to side with Eva Moskowitz, founder of Harlem Success Academy, who says these protesters are hugely misinformed. Charter schools are not here to conquer and overtake, she says. They are here to reform education.

As a mother and a resident of Harlem herself, Moskowitz understands all too well the pain of being mandated to send her children to the clearly incompetent schools within their zone, just because they do not have the financial capability to move to a better school district.

“The problem is not the parents. The problem is not the students,” Moskowitz said. “The problem is the system that protects academic failure.”

This, she said, was what spurred her decision to found Harlem Success Academy.

Of course, the subject of money is raised. Reforming an education system requires lots of funding. But the film provides several statistics that argue keeping low-performing schools is even more expensive. It costs the United States $500 billion per year to cover the achievement gap between low-income students and their higher-income peers. In addition, it takes $37,000 of taxpayer money per inmate, while costing $13,000 to educate a child in public schools, and even less in charter schools.

So are charter schools the answer? To Moskowitz, yes. She says they formulate a structure and teaching style that suits the students.

“Let’s put the focus on the children,” she said. “Not on the parents.”

Still, it is the parents who are most anxious as they wait for the lottery winners to be announced. Eyes are unblinking, wide open in search for their child’s name. Hands are clasped in prayer. Breath is held. The tension and anxiety are palpable and heartbreaking.

The Lottery does not just seek to wrench out a few tears. It is a subtle yet powerful cry for action, and it ends with four options for those who want to do a little more: “Mentor. Teach. Donate. Vote.”

2 replies
  1. lequan@luvtoeat
    lequan@luvtoeat says:

    Loved this article! It’s so true that many of us take for granted the education that is offered to us.

    I’m not familiar with the education system in the United States, but no matter what system, public or chartered, I think the students should be the main focus. Meeting requirements can still be accomplished with keeping the needs of the students in mind.

    Very well written! You pointed out some great points in this documentary. Definitely made me feel ashamed to have skipped a couple classes during my school days.

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