October 28, 2010 / 2:35 PM / 8 years ago

A Minute With: School principals on "Waiting for Superman"

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The documentary film “Waiting for Superman” has been generating a lot of buzz since its release in September for its portrayal of problems within U.S. schools and what might be done to solve them.

School principals, who watched the documentary film "Waiting for Superman" at Reuters' request, in a combination photo. Images released to Reuters courtesy of the subjects. Clockwise from top left are Paige Tracy, Donald S. Wilson, Davita Solter and Carol Markham-Cousins. REUTERS/Handout

The movie, directed by Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), explores charter schools — public schools operating outside the boundaries of public school systems — competitive lotteries to get into them, and roles played by parents, students, teachers and unions.

Reuters asked four real-life principals to watch the film and talk about its themes. Each principal was asked the same questions. Following are some of their answers.

Q: Give us your overall impression of the film.

Carol Markham-Cousins, Washburn High School, Minneapolis, Minnesota: “I was grateful that some very important issues were brought to light, but I was extremely put off by the emotional tug that occurred in regard to the lottery. I also felt like the film set up charter schools as being the answer. I used to be a principal at one of the first contract charter schools in the nation, so I’m very familiar with the fact that some of them work well and some of them don’t.

Q: The documentary does seem to favor charter schools. Are they the answer to problems in public education?

Paige Tracy, Arbor Ridge K-8 School, Orlando, Florida: “The way I saw it, it wasn’t so much that charter schools were the answer, but that charter schools can do what public schools need to, but can’t. Charter schools aren’t bound by teacher contracts and teacher unions. They have more flexibility and freedom to do what needs to be done.”

Q: The film highlights some problems with tenure, which can give teachers jobs for life. Are you for or against tenure?

Davita Solter, Centennial High School, Peoria, Arizona: “Good teachers need to realize they don’t need tenure. And teachers who are doing their jobs don’t want it.”

Q: Teachers’ unions were clearly villains in the film. Are they the enemy?

Donald S. Wilson, Wonderland Ave. Elementary, Los Angeles: “The teachers union is sometimes its own worst enemy. But I don’t know that it was a completely fair portrayal overall. The teachers unions have done wonderful things for teachers. They turned teaching into a valued position getting women teachers the right to be treated equally and the right amount of pay.

“Today, I think they’ve overstepped that need and lost focus of what’s important. If they would focus on the needs of children and not of adults, then it will be a win-win.”

Q: What changes are needed to improve schools?

Tracy: “The best thing we can do for our students today is to empower them to value their own learning in case they don’t have that type of home environment where education is supported. If we can empower students in that way, they will take it upon themselves to give 100 percent in and out of school on their own.”

Q: How important is parental involvement?

Wilson: “Huge ... Show me a family that is concerned and active in their child’s educational life and I will show you a child that will manage every bump in their educational road from kindergarten through high school, without fail.”

Q: If teachers and principals need to be held accountable, what about the students?

Slideshow (4 Images)

Tracy: “The problem these days is that the students are not held responsible for the grades they are making if they are less than satisfactory. It’s always, ‘there’s something wrong with the teacher’ or ‘this sports activity got in the way of homework.’ There’s always an excuse or someone else to take the blame, so the student is off the hook for not getting that job done. That’s how I’ve seen things evolve.”

Q: If you could meet anyone in the film, who would it be?

Solter: “The parents (of students followed in the film). I appreciated how difficult a decision it was for them to want to help their child. I’d tell them that because of their willingness to help their child, their child is going to go a long way, even if they stay in their public school system. I’d encourage them to keep doing what they’re doing.”

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Patricia Reaney

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