The latest in a lengthy line of ostensibly inspiring pedagogical documentaries, The Providence Effect presents interviews and archival footage regarding the unlikely, yet consistent, success of Providence St. Mel, a private K-12 situated in one of Chicago’s least savory neighborhoods. Though the film is short on the every day, nose-to-the-grindstone standards the institution practices in order to transform low-income urbanites into college-accepted graduates (the brief clips illustrating the alacrity of key instructors display uneventfully fruitful encounters with willing students, rather than probing sessions with problematic ones), it piquantly documents the school, and its unique—if, to us, oblique—educational approach, as the fulfilled “impossible dream” of Alabama native Paul J. Adams.
A rotundly avuncular, goateed survivor of the civil rights movement (his appearance reminds us of Cornel West without the ornamental hair and confronting gaze), Adams is an engrossingly enigmatic subject, and he wins us over quickly with his pithy soundbites and visionary but realist rhetoric (director Rollin Binzer, recognizing this, cleverly punctuates tedious segments with Adams’s instantly likeable visage). Providence St. Mel’s mission statement, which Adams drafted and which students recite every morning regardless of age, is particularly representative of this: A key declarative swatch pledges to “…work, plan, build, and dream—in that order. We believe that one must earn the right to dream.”
Halfway through the running time, however, Binzer starts to follow another of Adams’s projects—the organization of a new charter elementary school in a separate Chicago slum—and unintentionally unearths the reductive nature of Providence’s pedagogical principles in the process. One cannot fault the talented, assiduous faculty for affixing college education prep as their primary goal (nor for, in the case of their K-12 program, achieving university acceptance for 100% of the 2007 graduating class), but discussions with clean-cut, dress-suited lawyer and journalist alumni implicitly suggest that competing in the global market requires revising one’s objectives to match those of middle-American white males. Not a single former student has returned to the community as a teacher or a social worker? Did Binzer feel that we wouldn’t view the achievement of such vocations as proof of Adams’s, or his staff’s, success? Furthermore, as the details of Providence St. Mel’s history are interspersed throughout contemporary footage (initially a Catholic School, Adams underwent years of grueling fundraising to purchase the building and procure necessary materials), we realize that despite the strength of the institution’s narrative, it’s dismally inapplicable to the current education crisis in the United States.
In one infuriating clip, former President Reagan stops in for a photo opportunity and firmly commends Adams: “This is how it should be done.” This attitude surely refers not to expedient teaching styles but to private education that effectively trains the workforce of tomorrow without a dime of federal or state assistance; Adam’s anomalous triumph, while remarkable, is too easily appropriated as an argument for eradicating, rather than improving, the public school system. Providence St. Mel remains a fluke, a brief bubble of sanity and discipline amid a jungle of poverty and ignorance, and Binzer’s tribute only underscores the mind-bogglingly hazardous crapshoot we take when entrusting our children to local classrooms anywhere in the U.S.