Paul J. Adams III, an African-American man with activist roots in the 1960’s civil rights movement, came from a family of teachers. After being black listed himself as a teacher in Alabama because of his civil rights activities, he moved to Chicago, received a master’s degree in psychology, and then landed a job as guidance counselor at Providence St. Mel, an all-black parochial school on Chicago’s notorious drug-ridden, gang-ruled West Side.
A year after his arrival, Adams became principal, only to be told the following year that Chicago’s archdiocese was going to close the school. After orchestrating a fundraising campaign that received national and local media attention, funds poured in and enabled Adams to buy the school from the Sisters of Providence and convert it to a not-for-profit independent school. To ward off thieves and vandals, he literally moved into the empty nuns’ quarters of the convent inside the school.
He then set about achieving a new goal: To turn Providence St. Mel into a first rank college preparatory school, and its African-American student body into a corps of driven, disciplined, high achieving students.
That was over 30 years ago. Since then, 100% of Providence St. Mel graduates have been accepted to college, half of them, during the last seven years, to first tier and Ivy League colleges and universities.
The road from failing inner city school to a pre-K-through-12 educational system that produces graduates who attend Ivy League colleges and universities was not a smooth one. THE PROVIDENCE EFFECT traces the school’s development from a struggling shoe-string budget dream into a school and a method of teaching that produces not only inspired students, but parents, teachers and administrators dedicated to settling for nothing less than the highest expectations.
As testament to the hurdles overcome, and the efficacy of the teaching model that governs education at Providence St. Mel, THE PROVIDENCE EFFECT features interviews with alumni who share how the school re-wrote the failing, mediocre lives that had been scripted for them because of their West Side origins. The shared consensus is that the school’s philosophy set them up for success because greatness was expected of them.
Cameras in class reveal how teachers are held to just as high and demanding a standard as is expected of the students. Administrators are dedicated to insuring that a teacher’s first and only job is to teach….not to administer, not to become bogged down in red tape or hindered by a self-perpetuating bureaucracy.
In the 80s, President Reagan visited twice, remarking in the film, “This is the way it should be done.” As a young organizer, President-to-be Barack Obama also visited the school.
THE PROVIDENCE EFFECT is an effect that is on the cusp of becoming viral nationally: The school’s teaching method has been so successful that in 2006 another school, this time on Chicago’s south side became a charter school --- appropriately named Providence Englewood --- solely in order to achieve the same results. In two short years, these students scores have gone from the 9th percentile to the 50th percentile on the Terra Nova Standardized tests. Students at Providence Englewood significantly outperform other schools within their neighborhood.
Those improved scores are…THE PROVIDENCE EFFECT.