Bill Strickland and Waiting for Superman

This TED Talk by education pioneer Bill Strickland will get your attention. Social entrepreneur Strickland is not polite about the state of American inner city schools, but he is doing something about it in Pittsburgh, and branching out into other cities like San Francisco. He has a real talent for raising huge amounts of money for his arts-oriented institute Manchester Bidwell.

Bill Strickland’s journey from at-risk youth to 1996 MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient would be remarkable in itself, if it were not overshadowed by the staggering breadth of his vision. While moonlighting as an airline pilot, Strickland founded Manchester Bidwell, a world-class institute in his native Pittsburgh devoted to vocational instruction in partnership with big business — and, almost incidentally, home to a Grammy-winning record label and a world-class jazz performance series. Yet its emphasis on the arts is no accident, as it embodies Strickland’s conviction that an atmosphere of high culture and respect will energize even the most troubled students.

With job placement rates that rival most universities, Manchester Bidwell’s success has attracted the attention of everyone from George Bush, Sr. (who appointed Strickland to a six-year term on the board of the NEA) to Fred Rogers (who invited Strickland to demonstrate pot throwing on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood). And though cumbersome slide trays have been replaced by PowerPoint, the inspirational power of his speeches and slide shows are the stuff of lecture circuit legend.

Bill’s website is Make the Impossible Possible. Check out the Bidwell training center site. There’s an excellent article on Strickland and the evolution of his ’empire’ Bill Strickland: Role model for social entrepreneurship .

His book is Make the Impossible Possible: One Man’s Crusade to Inspire Others to Dream Bigger and Achieve the Extraordinary.

Check out the trailer for the 2010 documentary release Waiting for Superman, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (info page). Bill Strickland is one of the featured educators, along with such successful charter schools as Kipp, Summit Prep, SEED, and Harlem Children’s Zone.

“. . .follows a handful of promising kids through a dysfunctional education system. Embracing the belief in the philosophy that good teachers make good schools, and questioning the role of unions in maintaining the status quo, Guggenheim offers hope by exploring innovative approaches taken by education reformers and charter schools that have – in reshaping the culture – refused to leave their students behind”.

The Waiting for Superman website is a useful resource on American education reform. E.g., this Education News page.

And here’s an excerpt from a review of the film by Elliot Kotek:

(…) Through his dissection of the state of public education by breaking them into elemental units — kids, teachers, administrators, unions, schools, states and the nation at large — Guggenheim is somehow able to present the complex issues at play with relevant simplicity and global context. Are our kids failing school? Or are our schools failing our kids? And how much injustice is being done against kids in the name of harmony among adults?

In 102 minutes, Guggenheim enables us to isolate the institutionalized exigencies inherent in the system, and to identify the heroes and pioneers attempting to become the purveyors of an education that will ready the next generation for the onslaught of opportunities.

While the situational disparity between state of the teachers’ unions and the health of the system they are supposed to serve will no doubt stir heated debate in the months that follow the movie’s release (one could even argue that Randi Weingarten and the two major unions fulfill their roles as villains), the heart of the film belongs to the kids — Anthony, Bianca, Daisy and Francisco. Sampled from across the country, these small individuals represent the struggle for all of those without the means to break the molds that bind them in a vicious circle of “academic sinkholes,” “drop-out factories,” “turkey trots” and “lemon dances.” The film’s dramatic depiction that those who strive to make their children’s lives better must rely on the luck of lottery systems for acceptance into KIPP, Green Dot charter and other alternative schools, is both harrowing and heartbreaking.