I appreciate the invitation to provide my perspective on "Waiting for Superman.” I am thankful the film has stimulated a much-needed dialogue about education, despite the use of equivocal data regarding Woodside High School and the subsequent need on our part to address the inadequacies of the singular data point provided by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA).
Whereas the film does contain an explanation of the term "achievement gap,” it unfortunately does not explore the factors that precipitate such disparities in the educational levels of our youth. It does not explore the fact that many public comprehensive schools serve all students, from those who are highly motivated with engaged parents to those who are unmotivated with disengaged parents. Public comprehensive schools are not in a position to set forth the explicit admission criteria that "it is critical that prospective applicants and families understand what we expect from our students and families.”
Nonetheless, public comprehensive schools serve the disinterested and disenfranchised as well as the motivated and engaged, and to those superheroes and super-heroines who work in the "trenches” every day and who witness and wrestle with the oft-times unfathomable circumstances of some of today’s youth, I offer my gratitude and respect.
The dialogue at hand is not an exclusively educational one; it is most importantly a socioeconomic one. Until we as parents, we as voters, we as community members and we as professionals begin to address the funding inequities precipitated by the antiquated "basic aid” and "revenue limit” funding formulas, conversations about closing the achievement gap will persist in circuitous fashion.
Woodside High School has over 19 feeder schools, public and private, from over six school districts. Amongst Woodside’s feeder districts, the disparity was as great as $8,300 per student in total unrestricted funds for 2008-09. For students coming through these respective K-8 systems; the social, academic and personal effects of these disparities in the allocation of resources compounds for nine years. Consider also the percentages of students who attended preschool; I can see amongst my son’s kindergarten peers that the achievement gap already exists at 5 years of age. Woodside High School is charged with closing a salient achievement gap with every new freshman class. Unfortunately, in using a singular data point to emphasize the achievement gap, the filmmaker fails to consider our Special Day Class students whose goal is not entrance to a four-year university, but rather to achieve a skill set that will afford them a future of independent living. Furthermore, the filmmaker also ignores our Limited English Proficiency (LEP) populations.
"Waiting for Superman” describes Woodside High School’s appearance as a "private boarding school” amidst a community in which the average price of home is $1.1 million. Had the filmmaker accepted the district’s invitation to learn more about Woodside High School, they would have perhaps discovered that we are a Title I school, meaning we receive federal funds based on our percentage of students who qualify for "free and reduced lunch,” which is currently 38 percent and has been as high as 40 percent in recent years.
The flaws in the IDEA study referenced in "Waiting for Superman” are best exposed by DataQuest (California Department of Education), which indicates that our 2007 graduation rate was 96.4 percent, compared to a state graduation rate of 80.6 percent for that same year. Woodside’s four-year derived dropout rate for 2007, for the same cohort of students referenced in the film, was 2.8 percent, compared to a state four-year derived dropout rate of 16.8 percent. The film does not account for "natural attrition,” as evidenced by the fact that of the 532 freshmen who were assigned to Woodside in 2003, 131 students, or 24.6 percent, moved out of state or enrolled in another public/private school between 2003-2007; to put this into perspective, in 2006-07, 982 district students enrolled in another California public school, 100 enrolled in a public school outside California and 58 moved out of the country. Clearly, there is great movement amongst public comprehensive school populations, and a singular data point will often omit such details and either intentionally or inadvertently foster a misconception that this attrition is due solely to students dropping out. Although Woodside High School has been awarded a CA Similar School Ranking of "10” for two consecutive years, there is much work to be done. I am proud to work amongst a staff of dedicated and reflective educators who embody and embrace a collective growth mindset. Contrary to the words of Davis Guggenheim in "Waiting for Superman,” Woodside High School is acutely aware of the world around it; in fact, we embody it and we are not only keeping up with the world around us, we are leading it. One need only visit to discover this truth.
David Reilly is the principal of Woodside High School.