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'Waiting for Superman' returns to Baltimore for Thursday screening

"Waiting for Superman," Davis Guggenheim's wrenching and provocative film about American public education, was one of the most acclaimed and misunderstood documentaries of 2010. Some critics accused it of romanticizing charter schools and pinning the blame for the education system's failures solely on teachers.

Anyone who said that simply didn't pay attention.

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Guggenheim's film argues that we should learn from the relatively few charter schools that produce spectacular results -- the Harlem Success Academy, for example, and the KIPP schools. It also argues that administrators should have the freedom to reward and enhance the efforts of good teachers and to rid schools of the estimated 6% to 10% of the teaching faculty who are abysmal -- instructors who are obstructing education.

On Thursday, the Baltimore Bar Library will present "Waiting for Superman," followed by a discussion with Robert C. Embry, president of the Abell Foundation and former president of the Maryland State Board of Education. (The event takes place at 5 p.m. in Room 504 of the Mitchell Courthouse, 100 North Calvert Street; tickets are $10.)

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It's a homecoming of sorts: Baltimore was crucial to Guggenheim's development of the movie. Three years ago, he was struggling to figure out how to dramatize the education crisis in America. He told his producers that the subject was "a storytelling quagmire, full of controversy, with layers of denial and anxiety." He didn't think he could explore it in a lucid and engaging film.

He was ready to give up until he read Thomas L. Friedman's New York Times op-ed piece on May 25, 2008, about a heart-piercing event Friedman observed at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in Baltimore.

"It was actually a lottery," Friedman wrote, "but no ordinary lottery. The winners didn't win cash, but a ticket to a better life. The losers left with their hopes and their lottery tickets crumpled."

This lottery selected 80 boys and girls as the first group of students in the SEED school of Maryland in Baltimore, which operates as a public boarding school. It brings boys and girls out of disadvantaged neighborhoods and onto a campus where they live and study every school week — and make stunning educational growth leaps.

What hooked Guggenheim as a filmmaker wasn't only the lottery's upsetting spectacle — as Friedman wrote, "at once so uplifting and so cruel" — but also its power as a metaphor. "There's something wrong," Friedman summarized, "when so much of an American child's future is riding on the bounce of a ping-pong ball."

Guggenheim told me last fall that reading Friedman's column was the eureka moment for what became "Waiting for 'Superman.'"

Guggenheim couldn't fit Maryland's SEED school into this film. But it was central to his thinking "as a myth-shattering phenomenon that's proving that you can go into a tough neighborhood and educate every kid." And, he said, "People in Baltimore can understand the other big revelation of the movie, which is that the problem is not just in poor neighborhoods. The erosion of our schools has penetrated our middle class and upper middle class."


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