A documentary on one man’s commitment to transform the education and expectations of inner city children is playing at the theater at North DeKalb Mall.
The documentary “The Providence Effect” focuses on the larger-than-life founder Paul Smith III, who created the heralded not-for-profit private Providence St, Mel school on Chicago ’s West Side in 1978. (If you can’t see the movie this weekend – it is playing through at least Thursday at the theater on Lawrenceville Highway – read some of the stories about the school on the site.)
The filmmakers are clearly in awe of Smith, who is charismatic, charming and charged with the mission of seeing all his students go on to college. As a result, the documentary fails to ask any tough questions, opting instead for straight-on declarations from many people about how Adams and the school have changed their lives.
Still, the movie is wonderful testimony to the power of education to change lives and the power of one man to change education. The movie is well worth seeing for anyone interested in education.
Here is an excerpt of Chicago movie critic Roger Ebert’s review. I am sharing it as I think it is fair portrayal of the documentary:
One of the great success stories in American education is Providence St. Mel School, at 119 S. Central Park on Chicago’s West Side. This is a far from advantaged area where gangs and drugs are realities, and yet the school reports that for 29 straight years, it has placed 100 percent of its high-school graduates in colleges. Of course this figure benefits from the school’s policy of expelling troublemakers, but it also reflects its commitment to providing deserving students with a quality education. “The Providence Effect,” a new documentary, charts the school’s growth from a time when an existing Catholic high school was scheduled for closure by the Archdiocese of Chicago. A remarkable educator named Paul J. Adams III began at the school as a counselor, was named principal, raised funds to keep the school open as a private academy dedicated to college prep and later expanded to a full K-12 range. It boasts that in the most recent seven years, half its students have gone to first-tier, Big Ten and Ivy League schools.
A documentary about these achievements is certainly appropriate. “The Providence Effect” is impressive, although not quite the film it could have been. It asks few hard questions. It’s concerned primarily with charting the school’s achievements through a series of testimonials from current and former teachers, community leaders and national figures These witnesses are impressive, but the film’s lack of traditional documentary footage leads to a certain beneficent monotony. The doc observes, but doesn’t probe.
How do the students survive the toxic neighborhoods in their personal lives? What is the process by which a misbehaving or counterproductive child can be expelled? What is the selection process? How are non-Catholic students regarded? How do teacher salaries rank? Do gangs take a negative interest in the school or its children?
The film’s powerful message is that inner-city black and Latino children are fully capable of competing with anyone on an intellectual level. But potential and practice are two different things. What kinds of homes do the students come from? Presumably their parents are highly motivated on their behalf and maintain family discipline. Can the process of becoming a Providence St. Mel success story be said to begin at birth?
What prevents public school systems from producing results such as these? The film suggests that public schools spend too many resources on administration and bureaucracy, and not enough on education itself. Also, of course, they have to take all applicants — those suited for school, and those already temperamentally not suited. Guns and drugs are a problem. Self-image and school spirit are also. If there’s one thing we learn for sure about Providence St. Mel in this film, it’s that the students and teachers are united in a fierce belief in the school.