- The Washington Times - Friday, September 25, 2009

Chronicling the incredible success of Providence St. Mel, a school on Chicago’s decrepit west side, “The Providence Effect” comes off as more a gauzy 90-minute infomercial for the school than a real examination of its methods and strategies for success.

Located in the heart of a city with a long-broken public education system, Providence St. Mel emphasizes discipline in the classrooms, hard work from its students and holding teachers accountable for their successes and failures. As a result of the get-tough approach emphasized by founder and president Paul J. Adams III, the school boasts a 100 percent college admission rate. Over the past seven years, half of the students have been accepted to top-tier universities.

It’s an intriguing and inspiring story: Mr. Adams believes that education is the only sure path out of poverty and we are condemning generations of children to the poorhouse by failing to impart that message. The problem is doubly bad in inner-city areas like Chicago’s west side, where predominantly minority groups of children languish well below the nation’s average for educational achievement.

The teachers and principals at Providence St. Mel obviously are doing something right: After they took over a failing public school, test scores jumped from the ninth percentile to the 44th, no mean feat. However, we never really see how the school manages to accomplish this. We see snippets of students going about their work and are treated to a taste of the discipline imposed on them, but we never see most of the obstacles the school has to overcome.

For instance, it’s hinted that teacher unions have made life more difficult for the school. This is unsurprising: The Providence St. Mel formula is based largely on holding teachers accountable for their students’ success, and unions are apt to resist efforts to hold their members accountable for achievement.

We’re never shown any of these struggles, however. If unions are really a problem, it would make sense to show the audience just how they adversely impact the lives of the students their members should be serving.

Another area that surely impacts the students is life at home. The students who come to Providence St. Mel are, one would guess, blessed with some sort of support at home that many of their peers lack. Parents get only the briefest of mentions, however, and there’s no real examination of how these students’ after-school hours differ from those of their less fortunate friends.

It’s a shame because there are real lessons to be learned here and elsewhere. Instead of looking into these lessons, “The Providence Effect” is content to celebrate the success of the school without really exploring the reasons underlying it.

★★

TITLE: “The Providence Effect”

RATING: PG (some mild thematic elements)

CREDITS: Directed by Rollin Binzer

RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes

WEB SITE: http://www.theprovidenceeffect.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS