The Sometimes Riveting Infomercial The Providence Effect


Tucked in the closing credits for Rollin Binzer’s documentary The Providence Effect is a line noting that all proceeds from the film will be donated to Providence St. Mel, the school that the film celebrates—which might explain why so much of it plays like an infomercial. Located on Chicago’s East side, in the midst of a drug- and gang-infested neighborhood, Providence is one of the best-performing schools in the country, thanks to what we are told is the revolutionary approach to education set in place by the school’s founder and president, Paul J. Adams III, a former civil rights activist who has made education his battlefield. The first half of Providence is filled with platitudes and the repetition of buzzwords like “poverty” and “achievement,” but nothing that explains Adams’s policy in nuts-and-bolts terms. Just past the halfway mark, though, the camera follows the school principal on her daily rounds, and we finally see what all the fuss is about: a robust music program, teachers given the freedom to innovate their approach, and school initiatives that send students around the world for study. The film never completely shakes the feel of being more an advertisement than a documentary, but once it settles into a concrete illustration of Adams’s philosophy (“You’ve got to believe and expect that the children can achieve”), it becomes riveting.