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Film Review: Feeling the Power of “The Providence Effect”

More than three decades after turning a west side Chicago parochial school into a nationally acclaimed private K-12 academy that annually sends 100 percent of its high school seniors to college, Paul J. Adams has attained legendary status as an educator. Providence-St. Mel, the private independent academy Adams helped establish in 1978, is among the nation’s most successful urban schools and provides the model for Providence Englewood, a public charter school launched in 2006 in a partnership with Chicago Public Schools.


Adams and the two schools make for compelling filmmaking in “The Providence Effect,” a newly released documentary that examines the Providence-St. Mel story in detail. Directed by Rollin Binzer, the 92-minute film grips the viewer with inspiring interviews and vignettes of its students, teachers and alumni. Its most winning moments come unexpectedly when, for example, the film captures students cheering each other on to complete math and spelling exercises at the blackboard. Adams is seen as a blunt, driven man whose early life in the civil rights battleground of Montgomery, Ala., infused him with a fierce commitment to spreading education’s liberating and transformative power.


The documentary’s early scenes delve into Adams’ youth in Montgomery where he recounts regularly encountering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during the civil rights leader’s tenure as pastor of what is now called the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. Adams says that it was his youthful involvement in the movement that got him blackballed from teaching jobs in Alabama public schools. The prohibition led him to move to Chicago, where he went from working as a guidance counselor at Providence-St. Mel to becoming its principal in 1972.


Adams recounts how his anger at the decision of the Chicago archdiocese to close Providence-St. Mel motivated him to lead a campaign to keep the school alive as an independent academy. By the early 1980s, his leadership and no-nonsense approach to urban schooling had garnered Providence-St. Mel important allies and national attention.


Despite what personal opinion one may hold about Ronald Reagan, film clips of a highly impressed president visiting the school twice between 1982 and 1983 serves as a powerful testament to Providence-St. Mel’s accomplishments. It’s also telling that a civil rights veteran such as Adams not only had the political savvy, but the pragmatism to position Providence-St. Mel as a school that conservatives could embrace wholeheartedly. 


In the second half of the documentary, the filmmakers spend less time on Adams in an effort to capture details about Providence-St. Mel’s and Providence Englewood’s inner workings. The principals in the two schools practice vigilant and almost unnerving classroom monitoring, moving from class to class during a school day and checking up on teachers and students. The documentary lingers long enough on a number of individual teachers and students to convey their dedication to the mission of the Providence schools.


The establishment of Providence Englewood represents an experiment for Adams and the Providence-St. Mel administration. Early on, the documentary explains that education scholars and researchers have busied themselves in studying and documenting Providence-St. Mel’s success in keeping its mostly poor Black schoolchildren on a demanding college preparatory track. Adams, however, expresses skepticism that the education establishment is doing much to replicate what Providence-St. Mel has accomplished. Opening up the charter school puts the Providence-St. Mel model into a public school context and by the film’s end it’s revealed that the school has some success in improving achievement among its kindergarteners.


For the most part, “The Providence Effect” does not wade too deeply into education politics and policy. It prefers to work harder in the realm of hope and inspiration, and it succeeds at doing so.


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