I've already posted on my Facebook page that all my teacher friends should see The Providence Effect, an inspiring documentary now playing in New York and Los Angeles and expanding to other cities. I'm a little more reserved in my recommendation that others see it, because more objective viewers may criticize the filmmakers' tendency to view their subject through rose-colored glasses.
Still, the subject is fascinating. The Providence Effect recounts the remarkable transformation Providence-St. Mel, an inner-city school on the west side of Chicago, has undergone over the last 30 years. Created by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago in 1969, the archdiocese decided to close the school a mere 9 years later over declining enrollment and majority non-Catholic student body.
Paul Adams III, a former civil rights activist who has served as principal of Providence-St. Mel since 1973, felt this was unacceptable. He orchestrated a grassroots fundraising campaign that soon went national, and raised enough money to buy the school from the archdiocese. Adams then began the process of turning Providence-St. Mel into a K-12 college prep school.
The faculty implemented a simple yet demanding approach to learning: "Do the work". Their students, mostly black with a growing number of Latinos, memorize a lengthy mission statement that speaks not only of the school's philosophy but the students'. The statement ends with the stirring conviction, "With God's help, we will find a way or make one."
Since 1978, 100% of Providence-St. Mel graduates have gone on to college, with many of them receiving full-tuition scholarships based on their academic merit. Half of the school's graduates have, over the last seven years, been accepted into first-tier and Ivy League colleges and universities. The Providence-St. Mel approach has expanded to a newer charter school in the Chicago area and is gradually being adopted by schools nationwide.
The Providence Effect shows that this approach works, and works well. What producer-director Rollin Binzer (Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones) fails to show are any flaws in or criticisms of the Adams/Providence-St. Mel formula. There is one somewhat disturbing sequence in the documentary — in which the assistant principal catches a student doing a Spanish homework assignment during another class and publicly chastises both student and teacher — that opens an avenue to debate over the school's devotion to "focus." The debate, however, will have to take place off-screen among viewers.
While it's clear Providence-St. Mel does many things very successfully and these should be emulated by other educators, few viewers will be naive enough to believe that the school does things as perfectly as the film indicates. Even with normal, human flaws in the system, though, Providence-St. Mel is clearly doing blessed work, and this is cause for celebration.
Click here to watch the trailer for The Providence Effect.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.