How ‘Waiting for Superman’ film’s theories stack up in Grand Junction

Five students pining for a better education wait to hear their names called for seats in charter schools during the most intense scene of the new movie “Waiting for Superman.”

Some will make it. Some won’t.

The film, which makes its Grand Junction debut today at Regal Canyon View Theatre, makes the case that charter schools can sometimes offer the only route to a better education in certain neighborhoods. The film champions charters over public schools because most charters lack a tenure system that makes it hard to fire teachers and, unlike most private schools, charters are free.

Not everything in the movie translates directly to life in western Colorado. The film is set in large cities and suburbs in California, New York and Washington, D.C. The following are some key theses in the movie and how those assertions match or don’t match education operations in the Grand Valley.

What the movie says: Ineffective public school teachers are too hard to fire because of tenure, which charter teachers don’t have.

What happens here: Teachers at Caprock Academy and Independence Academy have “at will” contracts instead of tenure, which means they can be fired without the large amount of documentation required to remove a tenured teacher. Caprock Headmaster Kristin Trezise said the charter system keeps teachers on their toes but not so much they have to fear for their jobs daily.

“If you’re a good teacher, you’ll have nothing to worry about,” she said.

Just because it’s easier to remove nontenure teachers doesn’t mean teachers are losing their jobs much more at charter schools than at public schools. Independence Academy Principal Damon Lockhart said he hasn’t fired many teachers and has a steady retention rate at the school.

School District 51 Superintendent Steve Schultz said many ineffective teachers quit before earning tenure, as do some tenured teachers at risk of getting fired.

“They recognize they’re not making it, and they resign,” Schultz said.

What the movie says: Charter schools can be the answer, but they are hard to get in to.

What happens here: Charter school applicants have competition even in the Grand Valley, but not as much as inner-city students have. One of the students in the movie competes with more than 700 hopefuls for 40 slots in one charter school.

At Caprock Academy, about 100 kids per year compete for the 54 available kindergarten slots. Those students are chosen through a lottery system. The other 10 grades at the charter school have waiting lists in case a student drops out, the same system used for Independence Academy’s students.

Independence Academy usually has three to five children on wait lists for any grade, and most parents can enroll their students between April and August. Students come off the wait list based on who turned in an application first.

What the movie says: Students in poor neighborhoods are often stuck in bad public schools unless they get into a charter.

What happens here: Some schools in poor neighborhoods don’t have the best performance records, but some are succeeding. Orchard Avenue Elementary, for example, is the recent winner of a Blue Ribbon award for improving student scores while 45 percent of its preschool through fifth-grade students receive free or reduced meals. More than 68 percent of Pear Park students received free or reduced meals last year, but the school also has high math and reading scores.

Even those students living within the attendance boundaries of a low-performing school may have a way out without leaving the public system. District 51 allows students to attend a school in another part of the district, but only if there’s room after students living near the school register there. Students get to go to another school on a first-come, first-served basis.


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