By Allison Whorton
“Is everyone ready to go?” Candice McDowell, my fellow Education fellow, said to me at 12:45pm on Thursday afternoon. The Berkeley Rep School of Theatre staff gathered together in our lobby. What were we ready for? Not a staff meeting, not one of our many School of Theatre events. Instead, the six of us excitedly headed out the door and walked down Shattuck Avenue to a local Berkeley movie theatre for a field trip. A movie? During a work day? The School of Theatre staff can primarily be found in our office during the work day, plugging away at our desks, orchestrating our diverse range of theatre education programming, or out in Bay Area schools. However, this day was special. We went to see Waiting for ‘Superman’, Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary about America’s flawed education system.
With our large popcorn and soda to share, we scurried into the balcony of the movie theatre, awaiting the start of the film. It begins with an interview with Anthony, a little boy who lives in the Washington D.C. area. As Guggenheim interviews him about his experiences, the elementary school student says, “I want my kids to have better than what I had.” From the moment the documentary began, I knew it would be an intimate and profound reflection of the dismal state of our nation’s public education system. Guggenheim follows five young and promising students around throughout the documentary, and we witness how our current education system can hinder our youth, instead of supporting their growth as students and as people.
The documentary imparted some staggering statistics. America ranks only 25th in math and 21st in science among 30 developing countries. It is estimated that only 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill the 123 million high-paying, high-skilled jobs that will be available by the year 2020. More than 2,000 American high schools are “dropout factories” (meaning more than 40 percent of the students do not graduate). After I saw the documentary, I researched statistics specific to California. California’s high school graduation rate is 68 percent. In 8th grade, only 37 percent pass the state test in math, and 38 percent pass the state test in reading.An answer to our nation’s situation seems to be “charter schools” – schools that receive public money but are not subject to the same rules and restrictions as regular public schools. However, one of the issues with this system is that the charter schools cannot accept all applicants and are often forced to resort to competitive lotteries to determine who will attend these schools. One of the most poignant parts of Waiting for ‘Superman’ was the sequence in which the five students were waiting anxiously at their respective lotteries, praying that they would hear their number called so that they could finally be given the chance to go to a better school, to have a better education. I watched these stories unfold with tears in my eyes, praying along with the children on the movie screen, as I thought to myself: Why isn’t everyone given the chance to have a better education?
As the documentary came to a close, the audience members were given a call to action. We were encouraged to do our part in assuring that our country’s education system doesn’t continue failing America’s youth. Words flashed across the screen, inviting us to take a pledge, to continue the conversation, to help a local school in need. We sat in the movie theatre for a few moments longer, many of us still overcome with emotion. So – what do we do now?
The documentary put our work and our purpose into perspective. What is our role as arts educators and administrators at the School of Theatre in helping improve this predicament? We sat down to discuss it all the next day. A part of the documentary that shocked many of us involved some of the teachers’ union issues, including guidelines and requirements for tenure. Ben Hanna, our community programs manager, discussed arts advocacy. When today’s students are failing basic subjects like math and English, is it still important to advocate for the arts? We discussed how it is still important, as the tools students gain from arts education can help students with academic and social skills. MaryBeth Cavanaugh, our associate director, asked the essential question, “What can we do?” While we were left without specific answers after seeing the documentary, we felt urged to continue the dialogue that will hopefully lead to action and, ultimately, change.
While there can be a wide range of teachers in our schools, our work here at the School of Theatre can help provide educators – who are often struggling with budget cuts and very little support from their school board – with another tool for them to reach out and have an impact on their students’ lives. The documentary forced us to reflect upon the people we are serving, and what communities our teaching artists are entering through our outreach programs. How can we help underserved, underprivileged communities? How can we make sure we are making a difference within the schools that need the most help? Through our programs, we promote students attentiveness, self-confidence, teamwork, and an increased understanding of others’ points of view. One classroom teacher said after one of our outreach workshops, “[The teaching artist] engaged my students for an hour with a lot of content-rich skills. I learned a lot just from watching him and am inspired to do more theatrical work in my classroom.” The work that we do can provide a school teacher with resources to continue bringing art and creative know-how into the classroom, to continue finding ways to reach his or her students in more effective, imaginative ways. The work that we do can be a small part of how a young student is inspired, how they can remain optimistic during an often disparaging school day.
In the documentary, educational reformer Geoffrey Canada says that “one of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist. She thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.” While there is indeed much to be discussed and much to be done in order to radically change the path that our education system is on, as arts educators, we remain relevant because we can advocate for Bay Area kids, advocate for the first-rate teachers looking for more resources, advocate for arts education in our schools. And, perhaps, we can be our own unique version of Superman to someone – a student learning to read, a teacher desiring to bring theatre into the classroom, a parent wanting the best for his or her child, a principal hoping to inspire his/her school’s students. We can all do our part, we can all be Superman.
“An answer to our nation’s situation seems to be “charter schools” – schools that receive public money but are not subject to the same rules and restrictions as regular public schools.” First, if charter schools are really the answer, then we simply need more of them so that more students and parents who want access will have it. Second, the big difference in determining the academic success of a student is not just the teachers, it’s also the parents. Involved and caring parents will make a huge difference. If only there was a way to get more parents engaged in their child’s education.
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