Movie Review: Educational Success in Documentary 'Providence Effect'

"The Providence Effect" profiles a parochial school where all the graduates go to college.
"The Providence Effect" profiles a parochial school where all the graduates go to college. (The Providence Effect & Dinosaurs Of The Future)
By Ruth McCann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009

No muckraking, scandalmaking or Michael Moore-manship here. "The Providence Effect" is simply an earnest, if long, documentary about an undeniably good thing -- the Providence St. Mel school, which is kind of like Lake Wobegon, transplanted to Chicago's rough West Side: All the administrators are strong, all the teachers are good-hearted and all the children are above average.

Director-producer Rollin Binzer plainly and understandably admires St. Mel's, an institution that for the past 30 years has sent each one of its graduating seniors off to a four-year college. Well do we know that many American schools are doing a rather dreadful job, so it's inspiring to see that, at St. Mel's at least, our children is learning.

Through interviews with administrator Paul Adams III, "The Providence Effect" focuses partly on St. Mel's decades-long struggle toward stability. After Adams's civil rights involvement led to his being blacklisted from teaching in Alabama, he moved to Chicago and set about turning St. Mel's from a foundering parochial school in a gang-ridden community into a competitive K-12 institution.

Under Adams, the school has amassed donors and a sharp faculty, making private education accessible to African American students who might not otherwise have found themselves prepping for college. It's obviously a success story, writ large and public; Ronald Reagan paid two glowing visits to St. Mel's in the 1980s, and Barack Obama once addressed the students during his community organizing days, a tidbit that the documentary (shot in 2007) omits.

Compiling interviews, classroom footage and heartstring-twanging background tunes, "The Providence Effect" looks at St. Mel's and its affiliate charter school (Providence Englewood, established in 2006) through the eyes of alumni, faculty, students, Adams and St. Mel Principal Jeanette DiBella, a lady who can be very stern indeed (summoning vivid flashbacks to every administrator who ever made you scowlingly spit out a piece of Wrigley's).

Everyone who gets camera time -- including the dedicated teachers, the enthused parents and the kindergartners who happily shout, "Work hard, get smart!" thrice each morning -- is compelling and watchable. "The Providence Effect" has no need to snazzify its subjects, but it does go down the unnecessary path of statement-making; apparently intent on saying something bigger, the film keeps hinting that St. Mel's and its affiliate operate according to some sort of revolutionary approach.

This tactic is a bit distracting, since it keeps you on the watch for that elusive magic educational formula. But the formula turns out to be, basically, the Protestant work ethic. At these schools, students are expected to behave well and work hard, teachers seem keen and well-supervised, and administrators try to stay in the schools and out of unnecessary conferences. It seems like the Providence "effect" is simply the result of good schools in action.

Though it drags on a bit, the film is certainly good-hearted, informative and relevant. We look through the doors of the St. Mel's classrooms and we see the whirrings of a school that can help a smart West Side kid land a spot at MIT. That, at least, is something to celebrate.

The Providence Effect (92 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema, AMC Magic Johnson Theater in Largo and AMC Shirlington Theater in Alexandria) is rated PG for mild thematic elements.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company