In the new populist movie, Waiting for Superman, District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee appears on camera discussing her take on reformation among the nation’s troubled schools.
The controversial chancellor came to town three years ago, invigorating waning efforts to overhaul the city’s broken system, and stirred up a dust storm by closing failing schools, firing inadequate teachers and challenging the powerful teachers union.
She claims in the PG-rated film that kids across the country are getting the short end of the stick when it comes to classroom success. “Oh, I don’t think they’re getting a crappy education,” Rhee responds to a commentator in the film, “I know they are.”
The chancellor has been hailed nationwide for her efforts to change that status quo within the District’s public schools. And the film, she said, is testament to the fact that “we are changing public education in this country.”
But much more needs to be done, Rhee acknowledges, referencing President Barack Obama’s decision not to enroll his daughters in the DCPS system. “I started to tense up when I heard the president talk . And when he just straight-up said, ‘Nope, they’re not good enough for my kids,’ I said, ‘Good for you,’” Rhee recalled.
She said Obama wasn’t giving a political answer, but was just being honest in his response. “He said, ‘Yes, they’re making progress and it’s good that they’re coming along, but that they’re still not good enough for my kids,’” Rhee said. “We have to face the reality that for many of the parents in Washington, D.C., today, the quality of education that we’re providing is not good enough.”
While the film, currently playing at select theaters, focuses on the plight of public education and why it continues to fail despite all-out thrusts at reform, it includes a close-up of “Anthony,” a DCPS student who looks forward to leaving his failing public school and enrolling in a private facility.
But like four other students profiled, at the time of filming, Anthony was relying on the roll of a ball in a lottery to determine if he got to attend the facility of his choice, the Seed School in D.C. – also known as the nation’s first urban public boarding school.
As the film continues, Anthony, a fifth-grader being raised by his grandmother, becomes emotional divulging that he lost his father because of drug addiction. He also expresses concern at having to attend a school described in the local media as an educational sink hole.
“It’s bittersweet to me if I get in that will give me a better chance in life,” Anthony says. “ if I don’t, I’ll just be with my friends,” possibly headed for an unfulfilling life.
Rhee said in an Oct. 5 interview with CNN commentator Roland Martin that Anthony has since been accepted at the Seed School where he is doing “exceptionally well.”
Martin asked the chancellor about rumors that regular public schools are beginning to top charter schools.
“ literally drives me insane because charter schools are public schools, public dollars and the same children that serves,” Rhee said. “Some folks try to say that charter schools are bad, and that’s just not the case. Not all charter schools are excellent, but many that are doing amazing things for kids in this city,” alluding to Seed, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) and E. L. Haynes charter facilities.
Josephine Baker, executive director for the D.C. Public Charter Schools system, said she’s seen the film and that it doesn’t say a lot about the success of charter facilities.
While she chose not to give further comments on the film, she said about the city’s charter schools, “I think the charter school climate here in D.C. is unique in a lot of ways and certainly has made a difference in the education children in the city.” She added, “I can’t comment on what the chancellor has done positively or negatively, although she has come in and certainly set the tone for DCPS to be more responsive to its parents and citizens as a whole.”
Meanwhile, as Obama champions additional support for education and infrastructure improvements, talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, who recently devoted two days of her show to talk about failure among public schools, has donated $6 million through her Angel Network to help rebuild troubled systems.