The Providence Effect in Action

Fifty minutes into The Providence Effect, a documentary profile of Providence-St. Mel School in Chicago, an extraordinary episode unfolds.

The school principal, Jeannette M. DiBella, strolls down the hall and peeks inside a math classroom. All is quiet.  The teacher sits at his desk at the back of the room looking down at his notes. Each students sits at a desk at work on books and papers (they look like 8th or 9th Graders). Everything appears orderly and proper.

DiBella doesn’t move on, though.

“Are they taking a test?” she whispers.

The teacher answers that the students are doing independent study to ensure that they are “ready for the next week.” DiBella begins to wander the rows, asking the teacher with a grin, “Are you sure that’s what they’re doing?”

One student turns to look up at her as she approaches—a sure sign of uncertainty.

“What are you doing?” DiBella asks. She picks up the student’s papers and a textbook. “Uh-uh, uh-uh,” she mutters.  She turns to the teacher a few feet away. “They’re not.”  It’s a Spanish assignment. DiBella steps back to the teacher while the student sighs and leans backward. “If you’re back here and they’re over there, they’re not gonna get it done.” She shifts back to the student, confiscates her Spanish book and papers, and queries, “Is that what you’re supposed to be doing?” The student answers with a glum puff of air and DiBella adds, “Excuse me?”

“No,” the young lady mumbles. She knows she’s in trouble.

DiBella continues her tour, then asks the teacher for some reassurance. “So,  you’re gonna give them 15 minutes to work on it, then you’re gonna start teaching them, going over it with them?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he replies.

“You’ll have to monitor, though,” she insists, “because definitely this level will do that, try to do a different assignment.” She shakes her head, holds up the Spanish book, and saunters out, but not before stating, “This is not acceptable. I don’t know what your consequences is [sic], but she’ll have a zero for this assignment.”

DiBella heads down the hallway explaining that the student gets no credit for the Spanish assignment and only half-credit for the math assignment. Next stop, the Spanish classroom.  There, she tells the teacher of the problem, hands her the textbook, and informs her of the zero grade.

It’s an illuminating vignette. Over the years, Providence-St. Mel and its admirable founder Paul J. Adams III have received up and down attention (two visits by President Reagan, a profile in Reader’s Digest, a $1,000,000 donation in 1993 from Oprah Winfrey), it has a 100 percent college acceptance rate, and its ACT scores have risen steadily. But this tiny snapshot of accountability in a math classroom says it all.


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