by Alexandra Marie Daniels
The Lottery, one of two films about American public education to make the short list for the 83rd Academy Awards, gives hope that public awareness about the dire state of American education will continue to build.
The statistics that cross the screen at regular intervals during The Lottery are difficult to digest. Nationwide, 58% of African-American fourth graders are functionally illiterate and in Harlem, the neighborhood where the The Lottery takes place, 19 out of the 23-zoned public schools have fewer than 50% reading at grade level. Tragically, children who fall behind in elementary school are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to end up in jail or juvenile detention.
High school dropouts are an economic loss to the entire country. As President Obama points out during the film, the achievement gap “costs us hundreds of billions of dollars in wages that will not be earned, jobs that will not be done, and purchases that will not be made.”
“There were literally thousands of parents lining down the block, around the corner, down the avenue outside of the Harlem Armory waiting for a chance to see if their kids were lucky enough to win a spot for a school.” She chose the lottery as her subject and quickly discovered that lotteries like this one were happening all over the country.
“It really sort of flew in the face of everything I had heard about the problems in education and the reasons for the achievement gap… You hear all the time that the reason that lower income kids aren’t achieving at the same level as their higher income peers is because of poverty or culture or their parents don’t value or understand the value of education.”
Yet in her research Sackler witnessed just the opposite - thousands of parents wanting something better but not having alternatives. Sackler saw this as an important story needing to be told.The film follows four families in the three months leading up to the public lottery drawing for a spot at Harlem Success Academy, a public charter school in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Compared to the underperforming public schools in the neighborhood Harlem Success Academy is remarkable, but it is only available to those who are lucky enough to win a spot. Only one out of seven children who enter the lottery will win.
As the film states in the beginning, “the average black 12th grader performs as well as the average white 8th grader, creating a four year gap in achievement.” Harlem Success Academy is one of the charter schools that has succeeded in closing the achievement gap.
Most of the parents portrayed in the film did not graduate from college and some did not complete high school, but they all want something better for their children. At Harlem Success it is instilled from the beginning that each and every child is expected to go to college and have a career.
Karl Willingham, a Harlem Success parent, eloquently and emotionally describes the opportunity. “Do you remember when you were a child and you wanted to be an astronaut, or a scientist, or president of the United States and you couldn’t because no one taught you what direction to go to get there? So wanting to be an astronaut seemed as far away as the moon, which it’s really not that far, but no one told you that. You just don’t want to see anyone else miss out, just because no one told them they could have it.”
The expansion of charter schools in Harlem is controversial. When the Department of Education proposed that Harlem Success Academy 2 move into PS 194, a neighborhood school facing closure for poor performance, there is outrage by community members. Some see it as signs of gentrification, others as exclusive. Since the teacher’s union declined to be interviewed and the filmmakers were not allowed to film in any of the public schools, The Lottery unfortunately is one sided.I asked Ms. Sackler if her views on charter schools had changed over the course of making The Lottery. Sackler explained, “We have to raise our expectations. To me it’s just a hopeful story and I could care less if the school is called charter or public or parochial or whatever. But the fact that we’ve been systematically providing low-income kids with a low quality education to me was the important point. And what I discovered…what changed, is that I think while I don’t care what the school is called I do think that having more options is just better. And if the school isn’t working, no matter what’s it’s called – whether it’s charter or whatever – it shouldn’t exist. It’s just not right for there to be ten, twenty, thirty percent of kids at grade level when we now know that it’s possible to educate kids, seventy, eighty, ninety percent of them at grade level.”
Charter schools alone probably cannot fix our tragically broken education system. But what schools like Harlem Success Academy do is illustrate what is possible. They demonstrate over and over that students can achieve regardless of circumstances and from witnessing the 5,000 parents and children fill the Harlem Armory on the night of the lottery, it is clear that parents in low-income communities want it.
“There’s no easy answer,” Sackler reflects. “It’s not, ‘charter schools are the answer,’ or ‘traditional public schools are better.’ It’s just we have to be looking at this as how can we be constantly improving and reinventing ourselves so that we’re providing kids with a possibility to achieve their dreams. And I know that sounds a little bit cliché, but I think it’s true. I think there are some schools where you can walk in and you feel that kids are learning and there’s a joy of learning and you can see it in their results. And it’s a place where teachers want to teach and parents want to send their kids. And then there are schools… that aren’t like that. And I don’t think it’s fair, but I don’t think that that’s a reason to not have the great schools, and to try to figure out how to create more of them.”
About the Author:
Alexandra Marie Daniels is a writer, dancer, and filmmaker. She has made three films with the director Bernard Rose, including The Kreutzer Sonata (2008) and Mr. Nice (2010) and has worked with the director Martyn Atkins as a script supervisor on concerts such as Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Live from Madison Square Garden and The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010. Currently, she is teaming up with Los Angeles based choreographer Sarah Swenson to create a film version of Swenson's Fimmine.