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In Harlem, chances of getting into successful charter school are a long shot

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 4, 2010 - Lots of folks dream of winning the lottery as their ticket to a better life. But most of them aren't thinking of the kind of victory that "The Lottery" portrays.

Madeleine Sackler's documentary follows four students who are among the thousands hoping to win one of the 475 spots at the Harlem Success Academy, a New York city charter school offering families an alternative to the less-than-stellar public schools in the area.

As viewers get to know Eric, Greg, Ameenah and Christian, they also get a strong lesson about what charter schools are, what they are trying to accomplish and the obstacles they face -- social, educational and political -- as they try to provide an alternate path for a far smaller group of children than really needs it.

That broader message about the mission of charter schools will be spread widely Tuesday night when cities across the nation will show "The Lottery" as part of what is being called "Public Education Day." In St. Louis, the screening will be at the Ronnie's 20 Cine at 7:30 p.m.

Director Sackler says her film, and the nationwide showing, are an attempt to show that some families who live where traditional public schools are poor have a choice, but many more deserve to have that option as well.

"A lot of people ask whether charter schools are the answer," she said in an interview Friday. "It's not so much about whether charter schools are the answer. I think the focus should be on how do we create great schools, and it doesn't matter what they are called.

"The problem is that the traditional public school system has been failing in neighborhoods for a really long time, and now some schools in those very communities are working, so we thought that public education day was important overarching title. We want the focus to be on great schools in general."

Besides the long odds that students face to win the lottery and get into the Harlem Success Academy, the film provides other stark numbers to portray the grave status of public education in many big cities.

  • 58 percent of black fourth-graders are functionally illiterate
  • In New York, despite a history of poor student achievement, just 10 out of 55,000 tenured teachers were fired in 2008
  • The United States spends an average of $37,000 a year for each person in prison but just $13,000 a year for students in public school.
  • Nationwide, 365,000 children are on waiting lists for charter schools.

"The Lottery" begins two months before the day in April 2009 when students' names are chosen for one of the sought-after slots in the Harlem Success Academy. It introduces the four students it will focus on, with neither the filmmaker nor the audience knowing which of them -- if any -- will win the big prize.
Eric lives with his mother and father, while Greg lives with just his mother; his father is in prison. Christian lives with his father, who is from Africa, while his mother is in the Ivory Coast; Ameenah lives with only her mother, who is deaf.

Those in favor of charter schools emphasize that their success does not depend on the living conditions of their students but on the willingness of their staff to make every effort to make sure the children succeed.

"We're going to have to work three times as hard," says Eva Moskowitz in the film; she is a former member of the New York City Council who is founder of the Harlem Success Academy. "We do, and we're very successful."

Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J., notes that public education has failed to make the changes that almost all other segments of society have made, and widespread failure is the result. Even simple changes would help, he notes, pointing out that instead of holding the time spent in class constant and letting achievement vary, schools should set a high standard of achievement and spend however much time needed to help students reach it.

Opponents of charters include neighborhood residents, who band together to block the Harlem charter from expanding into a closed public school building, and the city's teachers union. Moskowitz complains of the union's thuggish approach, calling them "Godfather-like tactics" in trying to influence politicians and undermine the efforts of charters.

Sackler said she asked the union to take part in the making of the film, and also to be part of a panel discussion when it was screened at the Apollo Theater in Harlem last week, but it declined. "I've been trying to get them to participate in the project from day one," she said. "I thought their perspective was really important."

When lottery day finally arrives for Eric, Greg, Ameenah, Christian and the other hopefuls, long lines of parents and their children crowd an armory decorated with red and blue balloons, in a carnival-like atmosphere. The names of the lucky students are read off and flashed onto a big scoreboard, with the winners dancing in joy and the losers departing dejectedly. Some of them have entered other lotteries for other charters; others have pinned their hopes on this one alone.

As they leave, they are told, "You cannot give up hope" because there is a waiting list, and students may yet win a spot. But there is also a broader lesson about hope that they all have to learn, and it's not necessarily one they can get in a classroom.

Do the four students that Sackler follows hear their names called? She builds the anticipation to an Oscar-night pitch, but you have to see the film to learn the results. If you do, you won't be able to forget their faces the next time you buy a lottery ticket or read about disappointing school test results.

"It was an incredibly suspenseful event for everyone -- teachers and parents and all of us who were there," Sackler said. "But everyone was there for the same reason, to show the world that parents in Harlem and all over the country do care about their kids' education.

"A lot of people think some parents don't care, or it's poverty's fault. The parents you see don't come from Easy Street. They are basic, ordinary families. But they represent millions of parents who are in similar circumstances -- still fighting for their kids to have something better. In that sense, 'The Lottery' is somewhat hopeful, and maybe someday, there won't be a need for a lottery, because there will be enough schools to serve these kids."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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