Last night, Russell Mosley stepped up to a microphone in the auditorium at Jefferson Community School in Minneapolis and told the audience how the movie “Waiting for Superman” affected him.
“I was upset because I was Anthony,” he said, referring to one of the five kids the film follows.
An African-American fifth-grader attending a terrible school in Washington, D.C., Anthony never knew his mother and lost his father to drugs at an early age. In an effort to ensure his life unfolds differently, his grandmother attempts to win him admission into a public boarding school that sends nine of 10 students to college.
Anthony is one of 61 kids competing for 24 open spots, and the movie, a long-awaited effort by Davis Guggenheim, the documentarian who made “An Inconvenient Truth,” chronicles his family’s efforts to win one of them. The film does a terrific job laying out the crisis in American urban education today, in no small part because we see the ramifications of seemingly arcane policy debates from Anthony’s perspective.
Last night, Mosley did not elaborate about his life, but presumably part of what he meant to communicate is that somewhere along the line he caught a rare break, as — partial spoiler alert — did Anthony. Today, he is chair of the board of Minneapolis College Preparatory, a charter that will open next fall under the joint supervision of Minneapolis Public Schools and Chicago’s Noble Network of schools.
“Most people look at me and they see this polished guy,” Mosley said, breaking up.
Movie follows five students
It was one of a number of emotional moments during a dialogue hosted by AchieveMpls, which has been fielding calls from energized community members since the film opened here a month ago. The first movie acquired at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Superman” follows five kids, four of them poor minorities, in Los Angeles; New York; Washington, D.C.; and Palo Alto, Calif., as their parents try, quite literally via lottery, to win places for them in high-achieving charter schools.
President and CEO of the nonprofit, which works to support MPS, Pam Costain hoped last night’s event would start a conversation not about the movie’s many controversies, but about how to move forward. And people certainly wanted to talk.
Molsey’s fellow charter board member Rosita Balch stepped to the microphone to say she saw “Superman” nine times.
Following Blach was an AmeriCorps volunteer in a struggling St. Paul high school who identified himself only as Colin. With a staccato delivery he reeled off one systemic absurdity after another, professing to understand none of it. “What does Finland do?” he asked. “They’re smart there.”
While the crowd roared with laughter, Jennifer Godinez, deputy director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, shouted that perhaps Colin should be the state’s next education commissioner.
MPS teacher Barbara Katner said she saw the movie, which lands hard on bad teachers and the unions that protect them, “against my better judgment.” “I’m glad I did,” she told the audience. “I’m worried about how we are going to go forward.
“It is about race, and we are afraid to talk about it,” she continued. “What are we afraid of — success?”
Unions hit hard in film
Possibly the evening’s bravest speaker was Minneapolis Federation of Teachers head Lynn Nordgren, whose angry members leafleted the opening of “Superman.” In the film, teachers’ unions are depicted as rigid monoliths more interested in protecting the incompetent than ensuring that Anthony and his peers are positioned for success.
The characterization isn’t entirely fair to Twin Cities unions. Although there are plenty of contentious issues on the table between Nordgren’s union and MPS — not least of them seniority and tenure reform — the MFT has championed a number of reforms, including district sponsorship of charters.
“When I saw the movie, I was frustrated, I was sad, and a little bit angry,” Nordgren said. “But I’m glad I saw it.
“There are nights that I go to bed crying,” she said. “Most teachers I have seen walk into the classroom, roll up their sleeves, open their hearts and see what they can do.”
Still, more reforms are needed, said MPS parent Lynnell Mickelson, one of the founders of Put Kids First, a local group advocating teachers’ contract reform: “Our schools must be able to hire and retain the best, most engaging teachers they can lay their hands on, without regard to seniority or whether that teacher already works in the district.”
People need to let school board members know that voters will support them for making tough choices, she added.
As the forum drew to a close, AchieveMpls staff made sure audience members went home carrying a list of ways they could get involved, including volunteering with the nonprofit.
“Why are we working so hard to promote ‘Waiting for Superman’ and to bring you all together tonight?” Costain asked. “Because the situation is urgent.”