Are You Still ‘Waiting for Superman?’

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  • As a parent and former teacher, I tend to follow education issues pretty closely. Late last year, I started to hear the buzz surrounding the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which follows five students and their families in their quest to get the best education, and I was intrigued, especially by the title. How in the world was Superman related to education?

    So when Tom asked me and my fellow “Mama Gone Wild” cohort to go see it with him, I was excited and apprehensive. Excited because I knew I was going to eat good that day – you always do when you’re rolling with the Fly Jock. Apprehensive because I did not want to sit through yet another movie that offered up a bunch of issues and problems with no solutions in sight.

    What I came away with was probably what the director of this movie, intended: A sense of injustice at what these children are stuck with through no fault of their own, or their parents, other than the neighborhood in which they live. And the fact that there is no superhero waiting in the wings to come and save the day.

    Click here to hear Nikki Woods’ “What in the Weekend?” report.

    Most of the children featured in the documentary live in poverty in the inner city in some of the country’s poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods. They all have caring parents or grandparents who sacrifice much to meet their needs and try the best they can to ensure their kids have the best shot at getting a good education. It’s very similar to the story of Kelley Williams Bolar, who has been in the news recently for falsifying residency records so her two daughters could attend a better school. She was convicted and served nine days of a ten-day sentence. In addition to the jail time, Williams-Bolar was put on probation for two years and ordered to complete 80 hours of community service.

    Measures too drastic? Maybe. Maybe not.

    Student achievement overall in the last 30 years has flatlined, and we have free fallen in world ranking, from number one 50 years ago to number 25 out of 30 developed nations.

    The statistics closer to home are even more startling. A recent study by Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu revealed that only 12 percent of African-American boys are on grade level. Dr. Kunjufu details where our education system is failing young African-American males and what can be done to fix the problem, saying to the system, “You don’t teach the way you want to teach,” says Kunjufu. “You teach the way your children learn. You must adjust your pedagogy.”

    It seems too easy to blame the teachers unions, school boards and bloated district bureaucracies for schools’ failures. Many educators have to do the best they can with children that may come from challenging situations, at best. And certainly a good number of public schools and school districts, including some serving inner-city neighborhoods, do a commendable job at teaching students the skills they need to be successful in American society.

    And the city of Detroit, for one, is making sure that parents shoulder some of the blame and be taken to task for the lack of participation in the education of their children. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy is proposing a new law that would put parents in jail if they repeatedly missed parent-teacher conferences.

    “Waiting for Superman” attempts to speak to all of this, but obviously you can’t solve the problems of a system that has been failing for decades in two hours or less.

    But if you have a heart at all and you watch “Waiting for Superman,” it will strike a nerve. You root for these kids – cheering for those who do well, and feeling for those who seem to be slipping through the cracks.

    The answer, the film says, can only come if you and I take action. It doesn’t say what that action is. We are to figure that out for ourselves and for our children.

    The one thing the film does make clear is that the American education system needs fixing. Let’s hope the conversation started by this film continues and will lead to some meaningful improvements before it’s too late for the hundreds of thousands of children who will one day be in charge of leading – or destroying – this country.

    I know for my boys, their educational success or failure rests firmly on my shoulders. No, I’m not homeschooling and certainly know I have to rely on teachers, administrators, the community, family, friends and the system already in place to make sure that they are indeed educated, but as the CEO of Team Porter, I set the tone for what is acceptable for my children, as well as what I will accept from those who educate or influence my children. As with anything in life, the squeaky wheel gets oiled first. I want the teachers to know that I am going to be more than an active participant in my children’s schooling, and I want my children to know that their teachers have a direct line to me.

    I am not setting myself up to be an expert on the education of children; I am only an expert on what works for my boys. And everything I learned, I learned from my parents.

    1) Schedule.

    I keep my kids on a strict schedule. They don’t even ask anymore what has to be done when they get home from school. They get a snack, we review their day at school, and then they do their homework. After homework, it’s either sports, chores or errands before dinner. Very rarely do we deviate. I think it is important for children to have a routine, something familiar to them that keeps them focused. Of course, I also teach them that sometimes they have to be flexible, but just as I am expected to accomplish certain things on a daily basis at work, I teach them that the same thing applies to them and school.

    2) Involvement.

    I am room mother. I sometimes am their coach. I volunteer for school activities, and I will pop up for no reason at all. This is reminiscent of the days when my father would just show up on the regular at my high school. Not to say hi to me – in fact, I wouldn’t even know that he was there most of the time – but my teachers did. And that’s what he wanted. He wanted everyone involved in my education to know that he was watching.

    Some parents seem to think that it’s disruptive for them to visit their child during times other than lunch or special activities. And maybe it is, but it’s disruption with a purpose. It puts the child and the teacher on notice that you care about your child’s future.

    3) Prioritize.

    You have to make education you and your child’s number-one priority. While I feel it’s important for kids to participate in extra-curricular activities, sports, etc, if it takes away from my child’s education, then it’s got to go. The same goes for video games, hanging with friends and television time – in my house those are privileges, not rights, and are subject to denial at any moment. I have expectations for my children and their future, just as my parents did for me. When the bar is set high with a proper support system in place at home and school, children will rise to it.

    I am no longer waiting for Superman to come in and save the day. In my household, I wear the cape.

    Nikki Woods is senior producer of “The Tom Joyner Morning Show.” The author of “Easier Said Than Done,” the Dallas-based Woods is currently working on her second and third novels. You can friend her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter: @nikkiwoods.

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