Under the Rug and On the Horizon: The Providence Effect Review

Directed by: Rollin Binzer
Length: 1 hour 32 minutes
Development to Distribution: 3 years
Shot on: Sony PDWF800

I wish I had good things to say about The Providence Effect. It’s so rare to see a doc that tackles the subject of education in America head-on, especially one that purports to hold answers to the system’s many woes. The private school the film focuses on, Providence St. Mel’s in Chicago’s beleaguered West Side neighborhood of East Garfield Park, fully lives up to the hype too. Beyond boasting a 100% college acceptance rate for graduating seniors, the communal aura of commitment to education that permeates the teachers, students, and parents is palpable. Then these same dedicated individuals transferred their teaching model in an attempt to recreate this wild success in the newly minted public Charter school Providence Englewood, thereby potentially shedding light on a winning strategy for public education at large. Considering this solid premise, how does The Providence Effect manage to so thoroughly fail?

It doesn’t help that the doc can’t hide its lack of inspiration in terms of its craftsmanship. Nothing about this film takes any risks whatsoever, never budging from the worn-in formula of show and tell. The film does a good job balancing time between all the various students and teachers and the major “subjects”, but there is really only one character. Only the school’s founder Paul Adams III is fleshed out enough for us to see what ultimately motivates him. Too bad his and every other interview is composed entirely of fielding softball questions. Even when the various subjects do grow animated during an interview, the static Mid-CU framing and banal, even lifeless soundtrack work to dull the effect.

The strongest and most cohesive point of the doc is that Providence St. Mels owes its success to the culture of hard work, commitment, and mutual accountability that has and continues to dominate the mindset of everyone that steps into that building. I believe this is a valuable lesson; I’m confident that such a holistic attitude will play a central role in the winning strategy for education reform, whatever that ends up being. Perhaps achieving and sustaining this culture “isn’t rocket science” at Providence St. Mels, but the film fails to show how their day to day strategies trump their public school counterparts that are in many cases equivalent if not identical. In 92 minutes the film manages to dole out precious few specifics concerning the Providence “effect”, but makes ample time for self-congratulatory pats on the back. Generalizations and warm, fuzzy platitudes fly left and right while the doc struggles to pin down what this school does so differently. “We have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to violence… and gang-related activity” the principle at one point remarks, but then never goes any deeper. So are we to believe that all of the other schools that struggle with violence have a “three-strike” policy? Is there really a High School out there that doesn’t emphasize discipline or dedication to studiousness?

Unfortunately this documentary has even graver problems to answer for beyond the limp inspiration and infomercial approach to penetrating the subject matter. The Providence Effect feels like the interlude between two other films that actually matter, the fluff that gives your brain a rest before diving back in. One the one end, the explanation for how Providence St. Mels was transformed by Paul Adams III from subpar to superstar is relegated in the film to his gloss-over explanation that essentially amounts to “Veni, Vidi, Vici”. How was he able to turn it around in “one or two” brief years? That sounds like the making of a great documentary, but apparently it wasn’t really worth diving into.

On the other end is the question of the success of Providence Englewood Charter School. Remarkably, this is never shown in any kind of thorough manner. If the conceit of the film amounts to the belief that Paul Adams III and Co. are on to something that everyone should take a hint from, isn’t the entire point then to gauge the possibility that their model could be successfully duplicated? How can the film be silent on these details and still maintain what, in this light, is the arrogant disposition of “it’s not rocket science”? What does it really matter to public education reformers if a private school in a rundown neighborhood excels, especially when it isn’t tethered to local property tax revenue?

Perhaps this huge gap in the film is simply a product of the very recent arrival of Providence Englewood Charter School, and it’s just too early to tell if it can achieve the same outstanding success of its forerunner. But then why not wait to make the doc until it is clear either way? As is, the resulting feeling upon seeing the credits roll is worse than that of the garden variety, lazily shaped doc: the entire thing just feels like a waste of time.