‘Waiting for Superman’ sounds familiar themes for Hartford-area parents

At a private screening of the movie “Waiting for Superman” in Hartford over the weekend, many parents already were familiar with the film’s central message that the odds of getting a good education often are stacked against them.

The provocative film by director Davis Guggenheim paints a bleak picture of the nation’s urban public schools and follows the lives of five children whose hopes of getting into a successful school – in their cases a charter school –  rest on a random drawing or the bounce of a lottery ball.

Some critics have blasted the film, contending it oversimplifies the problem by vilifying teachers’ unions and extolling charter schools, the experimental schools that operate without the restrictions of most bureaucratic or union rules. Nevertheless, the movie strikes a chord with audiences like the one in Hartford as it captures the frustration of families desperate to escape underperforming urban schools.

“What I saw in those parents [in the film] I’ve seen a thousand times in our own parents,” said Hartford Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski, who told parents at the screening that “we should not rest until every child in the city has an opportunity to attend a good school.”

In Hartford, the lottery still plays a big role for families hoping to find a good education in a system where half the students entering ninth-grade drop out before graduation and where – despite recent gains – many students lag far below average on crucial measures of reading and mathematics.

Because of struggling schools in Hartford and other cities across the state, Connecticut has the largest academic achievement gap in the nation between children from low-income families and their more affluent classmates.

In Hartford, Adamowski has shaken up the public school system by creating schools with specialty themes and allowing parents to choose among them. However, those choices are subject to a lottery, as are the choices for various regional magnet and charter schools outside the district.

“If all schools were great schools, this would not be necessary,” he said.

For parents, the odds can be daunting.

“I was lucky,” said Shonta Browdy, who attended the movie’s screening and whose daughter, Tyshae, is enrolled at the city’s Breakthrough School, a popular and successful magnet school. Tyshae, now in fourth grade, was selected by lottery to attend Breakthrough when she was a preschooler.

At Breakthrough, there were more than 4,000 applicants this year for 50 openings, said Norma Neumann-Johnson, the school’s principal. Other schools also have long waiting lists.

Among those at the Hartford screening of the film was state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan, who said he was moved by the families whose hopes rose or fell as they sat through the school lotteries in the tense final scenes of the film.

“It was very sobering . . . to see that absolute desperation to get a high quality education,” he said. “It was heartbreaking to see these families denied access to something that should have been available to them.”

McQuillan said there are lessons to be learned from charter schools such as those portrayed in the film. Many charters, for example, feature longer school days and longer school years, something McQuillan has advocated.  He said, however, the movie oversimplifies the plight of urban schools by not touching on issues such as the impact of declining neighborhoods or the lack of access to health care for urban children.

One group that was conspicuously missing from the screening was the Hartford Federation of Teachers, which, according to school officials, had been issued an invitation to the event.

“I have no interest to sit and watch that movie. I know all about it. I have viewed parts of it,” said Andrea Johnson, HFT’s president. The film takes a harsh view of unions, portraying them as enemies of reform and protectors of incompetent teachers through policies such as job tenure.

“I don’t think I want to go sit with folks who have this view,” Johnson said.

The HFT and Adamowski have had a contentious relationship, clashing over policies such as seniority provisions. Adamowski has sought to limit job seniority, saying it interferes with the school district’s ability to assign the best teachers to schools where special themes such as science, technology or the arts require teachers to have special qualifications or training.

Many of those schools are part of a school reform program that officials say has begun to improve performance in the city’s school system.

Jim Starr, the head of the school reform group Achieve Hartford, said Hartford has shown that good schools can exist in poor urban neighborhoods, but much work remains. Achieve Hartford was a sponsor of the private screening of “Waiting for Superman,” along with the Hartford Public Schools and the Hartford Parent Organization Council.

Starr said it is possible that viewers of the film would come away thinking that “all unions are bad and charters are the only answer, [but] I don’t believe that.”

He said, “The solution for this . . . is not simply charter schools, not simply magnet schools, and it’s not about blaming anyone for the state of our schools nationally or here in Hartford.”

He said parents, teachers and community leaders all should be part of the effort to fix what he called a broken system.

“No student,” he said, “should have the opportunity for a good school based on luck.”