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'The Providence Effect'

The documentary about a Chicago school in a troubled neighborhood shows how one leader can change students' lives.


"The Providence Effect" is a powerful thing. It's the effect a school in Chicago has on its students, children who end up making successes out of their educational lives even though a lot of indicators pointed toward that not happening.

As directed by veteran documentarian Rollin Binzer, this uplifting film focuses on Providence St. Mel, a former parochial school in a devastated neighborhood, troubled by gangs and drugs, that has turned itself into a premiere college preparatory school. For 30 consecutive years, 100% of the school's graduating seniors have gone on to college.

The person behind this heartening achievement is the school's president, Paul Adams III, a formidably charismatic individual who is determined to change the culture of American education, to break the cycle of poverty and give poor children the same opportunities as wealthy ones.

A veteran of the civil rights movement, Adams started at Providence St. Mel as a guidance counselor.

When the Chicago Archdiocese threatened to close the institution, he began a fundraising movement that enabled him to buy the building, take the school private, and run it so successfully that President Reagan came to visit. Twice.

Adams says he runs the school the old-fashioned way. Discipline is key for him; he and his staff enforce zero tolerance for drugs. Without discipline, he says, you can't get a student's attention.

Once that attention is assured, Adams counts on his inspired faculty to excite the kids about learning, and judging by the interviews with current and former students and glimpses inside selected classrooms, the method seems to work.

Adams also insists that his students recite the school's self-help mission statement, which ends with "you have to earn the right to dream," so often that they internalize its message and become convinced that they can succeed if they work hard enough.

"The Providence Effect" was shot during an unusual year for the school, when an attempt was made to transfer its system to a failing charter public school in another tough neighborhood, to see what it would be like to bring Adams' methods in and start from scratch.

If anything is missing from this inspiring film, it is a deeper examination of why, given how common-sensical these approaches are, so few other schools have been able to accomplish what Providence St. Mel's has.

Is the power of charismatic leadership the reason? Or is it a kind of self-selection among students and parents, absence of bureaucratic red tape or just the will to believe?

Whatever it is, any system that gets kids to enthusiastically applaud classmates who do well academically, any system that, in Adams' words, "makes learning cool," is a tonic to experience.



'The Providence Effect'

MPAA rating: PG for some mild thematic elements

Running time: 1 hour,

32 minutes

Playing: At AMC's Magic Johnson Theaters, Crenshaw; Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica; and Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood

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