Posted: 10/04/2009


The Providence Effect

by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

Film Monthly Home
Wayne Case
Steve Anderson
The Rant
Short Takes (Archived)
Small Screen Monthly
Behind the Scenes
New on DVD
The Indies
Film Noir
Coming Soon
Now Playing
Books on Film
What's Hot at the Movies This Week
Interviews TV

The Providence Effect is such a good documentary about a successful K-12 academic program on the West Side of Chicago that I sort of want to have a baby, so that I can enroll the kid in the school in about six years.

Providence-St. Mel High School is at the center of the documentary that begins with the 2007 graduating class, which saw all of its students—100 percent—accepted into college (and this college acceptance rate is the norm). The school at one time was a Catholic school, but in 1977 Paul Adams took over the reins, after having come to Chicago from Alabama a few years earlier.

Under his leadership the school has excelled in many ways, with academic excellence and discipline at its core. The film documents the school’s origins and current status, as well as a new charter school, Providence Englewood, which opened on the South Side of Chicago in 2006.

But we can’t help but hold out hope that students all over Chicago and the nation for that matter could bask in the glow of what is the closest thing to excellence in academic instruction. And I know that a distinction must be made that Providence is a private and not public school.
The administrators and teachers don’t take any stuff off the students on the West Side, and it’s noted that while there is tuition to the school, most parents don’t pay full tuition. The school is supported by alums and benefactors from all over the country, according to the documentary. Alums interviewed in the movie include doctors, attorneys, school administrators, among others, and most notably Prof. John Fountain of Chicago’s Roosevelt University.

As we look in on the students’ instruction, even the 2nd graders are amazing, as they engage in enlightened conversation about whether a person in a particular reading thrust himself as a hero, or whether he’s been viewed as a hero because of his actions. The interaction between the youngsters as they volley ideas back and forth, and politely ask one another to repeat a viewpoint, is just mind boggling. Mind boggling in the sense that it shouldn’t be, but because I know that similar instruction, discipline and progress isn’t being made at the average Chicago public school. Math classes are totally engaged with rapid-fire instruction, all eyes on the chalkboard, as the instructor lays out the equation, while asking for answers from the students.
If Adams could bottle the success of The Providence Effect and peddle it across the nation, that would be great. So far, only two schools, I believe, are using the instruction program, as they’ve had researchers document, test and attempt to replicate it at other institutions.
And while I know that the Englewood charter school will have to come up to speed, it certainly seems to be on the right track to success.

The important thing to note with the Providence Effect is that it’s only as successful as the time and effort that’s spent on all levels, from the teachers, parents, students, administrators—all who are involved in the child’s progress.

The students at St. Mel go into the lower-level classes reciting a resolution that promotes their success, no matter what. They go into kindergarten thinking about college. Now, some may say that’s asinine. But you have poor little Black boys at 8 and 9 saying they want to go into the NBA. So why not have similar aged children not only dreaming but working toward college.
The Providence Effect just pounds home the idea that the younger you surround a child with love, discipline, instruction, academics and measurable progress, the more likely you are to steer that child toward excellence and away from the morass of negativity that is surely around the corner.

The Providence Effect is playing at a couple of theaters in the Chicago area; hopefully it will be distributed at more across the nation, so all can see the good work that Adams and his crew are doing.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.

Got a problem? E-mail us at