Movie with a message: “Providence Effect” depicts powerful school and leader

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.

10 comments Add your comment


January 30th, 2010
9:04 am

Leadership, leadership, leadership….with a mission and a purpose is the most powerful school reform. Your principal and school superintendent are key players in the success of a school or system. Put a strong leader in place with wisdom and vision and you’ll see progress.

I’ve worked with some decent administrators. However, in 16 years of teaching, I’ve only taught under one administrator that had vision, wisdom, and the gonads to implement his vision. He also had a superintendent that supported him.


January 30th, 2010
9:25 am

Part of it is instilling a belief that they can learn and succeed in the students. The other part – and perhaps the one public schools are unable to accomplish – is “expelling the troublemakers” and keeping only those children who want to learn and are willing to work.

I think part of the problem with education now is that it’s required and students are encouraged to believe they may go to college long past the point where their lack of effort and achievements make going to college either practical or possible.

It’s my belief that if we were to implement some version of the European system in which students had to have proven abilities and motivation to even enter the college preparatory high school, we’d see students working harder in lower grades to make that possible.


January 30th, 2010
9:28 am

“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”

Um, well, yeah. Can’t really compare the Ivy Leagues to the dump. The old self-selection bias is pretty overwhelming, isn’t it? Point?


January 30th, 2010
10:11 am

It’s like naming the best Medicaid doctor. The one that wins the prize is the one located far from public transportation–those who use the doctor have to have cars or friends who can bring them. The doctor is allowed to “refer away” patients who are not compliant with his suggestions, as well as those with multiple serious problems. And the doctor does not have to do any complex paperwork to be reimbursed. OF COURSE that doctor’s “accomplishments” will look good!

Or, an interior decorator (not sure why that came to mind) who works with folks with beautiful new homes and unlimited resources vs. one who is asked to remodel the kitchen (with holes in the floor and nonworking appliances) on $400.

Bring this educator to my county, with two same grade level buildings sitting side by side. Let him “innovate” with a randomly selected group of kids. His school cannot expell students, and has to serve whatever student is randomly assigned. His school does not get a special name (along with the cachet it conveys). Compare the schools’ achievements. I’d be willing to bet, in a fair experiment, the results are insignificantly different.


January 30th, 2010
11:08 am

Many principals and educational leaders start out with “wisdom and vision” in the public sector but soon learn that they have to compromise these things, sometimes severely, in order to survive. A school principal is subject to every central office, school board or state DOE whim. There is no longer much freedom in running a school. If the principal doesn’t become a lackey to the superintendent, or at least pleasantly compliant they will be let go or transferred out. Those few who do try to stand up for what they think is right for kids and teachers against central office wishes are either non-renewed, pushed out or ostracized and often even find funds withheld from their school for various reasons. You can’t stand up or fight back without support from higher ups due to nonexistent tenure now (try leading a group of teachers with tenure in a direction they may not wish to go when you have none or voicing a strong concern about the superintendent’s new policy of the week – and then wonder why so many school administrators wind up either as bullies or wimps). If you are blessed with one of the few good system leaders then you might stand a chance, if not you either comply or die. You don’t even have rights to a hearing as a nontenured administrator when you are let go. Twice in my career I have balked at something a superintendent asked me to do I found very unethical and detrimental for students and twice I have found myself looking for new employment almost immediately. Unfortunately the bank doesn’t really care how ethical I feel I may be or how important it was to stand up for my kids or teachers when the mortgage is due.

The other issues is, as many have stated, these ‘wonder schools’ do not have to keep the truly disruptive kids. I have led both private and public schools, this is a huge factor in the success of the private schools along with small class sizes. Leadership in public schools right now is not so much about leading and vision as it is about being a good yes man and politician. I sort of feel these types of movies (Ron Clark comes to mind) paint a very unrealistic picture of the world of education and leads to a great deal of the dissatisfaction with education and contempt we see regarding educators in general these days.

Charisma and charm are all well and good. Having the right tools to actually do the job is much more critical.


January 30th, 2010
11:47 am

@Mac…I agree with you 100%.


January 30th, 2010
8:39 pm

Of course this figure benefits from the school’s policy of expelling troublemakers…

Don’t compare our public schools to those such as Providence and Ron Clark until our schools are allowed to get rid of “troublemakers” as are all of these private school. When so much of the school day is spent dealing with discipline issues, of course public schools are never going to be able to catch up.


January 30th, 2010
8:51 pm

I visited Providence/St. Mel in the early 90’s on a college trip. What they were doing in the depths of the Chicago projects was amazing. But, like others have said, the school had the ability to toss out the kids who didn’t want to be there. What they ended up with was a community that was determined to succeed. Some of those kids came from backgrounds that would make your hair stand on end, yet they were determined to go to college and pull themselves out of the hellhole where they were. As a 19 year old kid from lily white, rural Indiana, I was amazed.


January 30th, 2010
8:59 pm

I’m trapped again! (The filter must not like me lately. :) )


February 28th, 2010
3:15 pm

I watched the documentary today on television, and I am impressed with the approach this school has taken to educate all of their youth. One interesting fact shared at the end of the documentary was the fact that only “2″ schools out of 128,000 nationally have adopted the concept of Providence St. Mel. This figure is very sad………very sad and unfortunate. We have a public school system where they often say one thing and then do another. For example, the dress code is broadcasted through a vareity of mediums; however, it is rarely enforced to a full degree, when the students continue to wear what they want, and how they want (pants hanging below their waiste.) It is obvious that the public school systems are saturated with educators who are there to get a check, rather than educating our children. Many of them are driven by obtaining results thus leading to many students who hover around the passing/fail borderline, and are walking away with a report card with the grade of 70 in four classes. In case you are not aware, 70 is passing, and 69 is failing. We need more schools who are preparing our kids by giving them challenging assignments, rather than crossword puzzles which helps them pull their grade up from a 68 to a 70. This is a disservice to our children and their future. This documentary has really motivated me even more to make a difference, and I assure you that I will.