The Providence Effect
“The Providence Effect” is a compelling documentary about one school’s approach to learning. It is fair to say that the film can also be seen as a national cautionary tale and wake up call about the state of our country’s educational system. The school, Chicago’s Providence St.-Mel, grades K – 12, “radical” methods include hard work, discipline and no nonsense. Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White suggested putting Providence St.-Mel on a Xerox machine and sending out 500,000 more institutions just like it. The documentary claims that 6,000 American high school students drop out every week. For the past 29 years (the documentary takes place in 2007) Providence St.-Mel has seen 100% of its graduates accepted at colleges, and for the past seven years over half to first tier schools. These facts are especially significant considering that Providence St.-Mel is located in Garfield Park, a crime ridden, largely African American, poverty stricken section of Chicago’s west side.
In 1971 Paul J. Adams, a teacher, came to Providence-St. Mel as a guidance counselor and eventually took over as principal, running the school with the belief that, “The whole purpose of education is to break the cycle of poverty.” Adams, a driven, charismatic man who was involved in the Civil Rights Movement once said, “If we don’t get education under control in this country what’s going to happen in the streets is going to make the Civil Rights Movement look like a tea party.” He explains his simple approach: He hires competent people, gets the students’ attention, and once that is accomplished they can be taught. “People think this is such a miracle. It’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” Adams explains with quiet passion.
The private school is supported by donations and sometimes by multiple family members pooling resources to pay a child’s tuition. Providence-St. Mel guarantees that its students will go to college. The idea of college and of improving their lives and community is instilled in the students as early as kindergarten.
What impressed me in terms of the filmmaking is that we are not just told about the school’s approach to learning, we become immersed in it. Be it a geometry class, or first graders learning how to add 37 plus six, we are shown how the students are taught. There are also individual interviews with the faculty, who all care about their students very much. The interviews are inter-cut with footage of the actual classroom work, creating a narrative that is convincing and involving. There is a sequence where the school’s principal, Jeanette DiBella, talks about the importance of her showing up in the classrooms. While we hear her telling us this, we see DiBella going into class rooms observing teachers and looking at students’ work. At one point she catches a student doing Spanish work in a math class. There will be consequences for both student and teacher.
In terms of criticism the film does have a tendency to needlessly repeat certain points and in general runs longer than necessary. Over all though, “The Providence Effect” is an eye opening look at an educational model that is basic and should be replicated throughout the country yet, according to the end titles, is only used in two schools.
“The Providence Effect” opens locally on September 25 at Quad Cinema 34 W. 14 St. and at AMC Empire 25 on 42 St.
The Providence Effect, director Rollin Binzer, 2009,
Slow Hand Cinema in association with Dinosuars of the Future, 92 minutes, rated PG