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Schools and ‘Superman’

After filming rock stars Jimmy Page and Jack White in “It Might Get Loud” and Al Gore in “An Inconvenient Truth,” documentarian Davis Guggenheim turns to a subject who is less of a celebrity — the teacher.

“Waiting for Superman” questions what ails today’s public school system, and in two weeks it will reach moviegoers in Hillsborough County, the nation’s eighth-largest school district.

In the past week, hundreds of news stories have covered the film’s detailing of teachers unions, charter schools and education reform. According to the Wall Street Journal, the film earned $141,000 in four theaters in its opening weekend.

The story centers around five kids struggling in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. districts, hoping for acceptance into charter schools through lotteries.

First-grader Francisco attempts to get into Harlem Success Academy  — a school with 40 spots and 792 applicants   after being denied admission to seven New York charter schools.

Fifth-grader Daisy, who lives in a Los Angeles neighborhood where most students  never graduate high school, aspires to be a doctor and hopes for admission into KIPP LA Prep — a school with 10 spots and 135 applicants.

Besides following the students, “Waiting for Superman” collects interviews with Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada, who presides over the non-profit school organization Harlem Children’s Zone.

Guggenheim said he thinks the best charter schools serve as an example for improving public schools as a whole.   

“Some of them don’t do very well — only one in five do really, really well,” Guggenheim said. “But charters are a real key because the ones that do really well — the high-performing ones — have found ways to reach every kid and send 90 percent of those kids to college.”

“Waiting for Superman” is Guggenheim’s second film to address education after detailing five Los Angeles teachers in 2001’s  “The First Year.” His father, Charles, directed a documentary called “High Schools” in 1983.  

Though there was no easy answer to the situation, Guggenheim said “Waiting for Superman” offers steps that concerned viewers can take in its end credits and “Take Action” section of the movie’s website.

“The solutions will have to be in every school,” Guggenheim said.  

Tampa Charter School principal Sheila Thomley said she thought some alternatives the film addresses were already implemented in Florida, citing McKay scholarships and charter schools.  

“My first response to the movie is that I think Mr. Guggenheim is probably a little behind the times as far as recognizing what’s going on,” Thomley said. “Some of the dialogue he’s calling for has long since taken place.”

Thomley said the 8-year-old Tampa Charter School has just more than 130 of its 150 spots filled, and that other Hillsborough County charter schools currently have open seats.  

Tampa’s Alexander Elementary School was even the backdrop for a March 2010 education debate hosted by MSNBC’s  “Morning Joe” program, where Thomley and members from Harlem charter schools were among more than 200 attendees.

Still, other charter schools in the Tampa Bay area have struggled to meet state standards. The USF/Patel Center charter school received an F grade and was taken back by the Hillsborough County School District in 2008.

The film has received criticism from teachers and education officials — including American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten — for overemphasizing poor teachers and teachers unions while not sufficiently promoting public schools. Thomley said she agrees that bad teachers are not the predominant problem.  

“They’re saying, ‘Well, are you discharging teachers?’ and the answer is in Hillsborough County, probably not,” Thomley said. “That’s because we’ve done an excellent job — both traditional and charter — in weeding out those people before they ever reach that point.”

Yet, Thomley said she does see value in the film’s discussion of “the detonation of the nuclear family,” and she believed education’s largest concern is families in crisis.  

“It’s harder for them — even for kids that are bright and would like to be attentive — if you’re worried about if someone’s going to foreclose on your home. It’s very difficult to turn your attention to a social studies lesson or a science lesson,” Thomley said.  

“Waiting for Superman” expands to Tampa on Oct. 15.