Be a 'Superman' in Your Community

If you saw the movie "Waiting for 'Superman' " you likely started crying from the opening images of orange juice, shoes and backpacks, and consistently sobbed until the closing credits. Then you heard John Legend's deeply moving anthem and reached for another Kleenex. It's a safe bet the scenes involving the rubber room or the dance of the lemons made your blood boil -- and you left the theater wanting to do everything possible to ensure the Anthonys, Daisys, Biancas, Emilys, and Franciscos of the world would never be failed by their communities and their country again.

"Waiting for 'Superman' " is too good and too important of a film for its ultimate response to be just tears, anger or even debate. We must hope it is action, and ultimately, results. The wave of press coverage and interest that has accompanied the film is particularly heartening, knowing how educators, especially on the local level, usually have to fight for all the ink they can get. Everyone seems to agree the solution to our education crisis is raising our education standards and then equipping great teachers with resources to get our students to reach a higher bar. The "take action" website for the film is a terrific starting point especially in terms of education and advocacy, but to truly turn the tide, we're going to have to roll up our sleeves, and channel our inner Geoffrey Canada. Writing letters to governors demanding change is important. But tutoring a young person on the brink of dropping out -- changes the world.

At the end of his Meet The Press broadcast last week, David Gregory said quite movingly, "...if you drive by a public school, even if your kids don't go there, walk in and ask how you can help, whether you can tutor or provide resources to a teacher." That was the most critical message in a very important education debate that occurred the hour before. As Americans, we are unparalleled in answering the call to service when the call is crystal clear: think long lines at blood donation banks post 9/11 or the outpouring of support shown to our neighbors in Haiti ten months ago.

We need to view this public education crisis with the intensity and urgency of a natural disaster, especially when the news turns its attention away from the film. So while politicians, educators and union officials work on that much needed sweeping reform the movie so beautifully solidified the need for -- let's not lose sight of the amazing change each of us can make on the local level, where we can collectively take a good first step to fixing some of the problems highlighted in the film.

Take Communities in Schools (CIS). It is the nation's leading dropout prevention organization, which for thirty years has quietly provided students the resources they need to rise out of failure. Their story is one of the few bright spots in public education over the past few decades. We need to champion this kind of work. President Obama has heralded the organization. Time Magazine recently included CIS in its comprehensive "What Makes Schools Great" feature.

Here's how it works: Communities in Schools places on-site coordinators on the campuses of poorly funded or poorly-performing public schools and pulls in community resources to ensure kids are given the best chance to realize their full potential.

These on-site coordinators, along with an army of volunteers (more than 50,000 across the country), serve as one-on-one mentors & tutors, they provide access to social services, health services, connections to the community, career and college counseling, job exploration, and community service projects. All of this adds up to improved academic performance, attendance and behavior ensuring that more students stay in school and graduate.

If you saw the movie, CIS would ensure kids like Francisco get access to reading specialists, students like Anthony receive grief counseling, and someone with the drive of Daisy receives enrichment opportunities and job shadowing, so she can move closer to realizing her hopes and dreams.

Communities in Schools is currently serving 1.3 million young people in more than 3,400 schools in 23 states, in the most vulnerable areas of our country. They do it at the cost of about $200 per child, which is a real bargain when you consider the cost to society when someone drops out of high school.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has a graduation rate of about 45%. While the program in Los Angeles (CISLAW) is still very new and only in two high schools and two middle schools, there is evidence of early success. CISLAW watched nearly 90% of its inaugural students graduate on to the next level. These were students at risk of dropping out, but through CIS turned a corner. What if we could help expand this CIS chapter's reach both in terms of resources and volunteers? Imagine the impact on LA's graduation rate.

This is an example of one way we could realize the vision of the film without a change in legislation or action by a school board.

My wife and I once asked the principal of our daughter's school, "What is the number one thing we can do to ensure our child gets a good education?" "You just did it," he said. "You are involved. Get involved and stay involved. Not just for your kid but for the rest of community."

Davis Guggenheim (and everyone involved with this film) has done our country a great public service. The conversation has been tipped. We need to keep it going in every way possible.