SCOTT SIMON, host:
Providence-St. Mel has been a kind of academic lifeboat on the West Side of Chicago for 30 years. It was once a Catholic school serving youngsters from inner-city families. When the Archdiocese of Chicago decided it could no longer keep the school open, the school's principal, Paul J. Adams, started a campaign the press called "The School that Wouldn't Die." They raised money to keep St. Mel's going as a low-cost private school.
And today that school is an inspiration. One hundred percent of its graduates are accepted to college; a recent graduate has enrolled at MIT. President Reagan cited St. Mel's as a model when he visited the school in the 1980s, and Oprah Winfrey gave it a million dollar grant.
A new documentary is just out: "The Providence Effect," follows a year in the life of Providence-St. Mel's and its founder, Paul J. Adams III. He joins us from Chicago Public Radio.
Mr. Adams, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. PAUL J. ADAMS III (President, Providence-St. Mel School): Well, thank you for having me here.
SIMON: And I want to bring people right into the school and this film because there's a scene where second-graders are sitting in a circle, and they're analyzing a book they've read.
(Soundbite of "The Providence Effect")
Unidentified Child #1: (Unintelligible) did do what he thought was right because he didn't want all of his friends' houses to be washed away.
Unidentified Man: Very good (unintelligible)�
SIMON: To hear seven years olds so knowledgably discussing what they've read raises the overall question, Mr. Adams: what's your school doing that works so well?
Mr. ADAMS: I think we have very intelligent people teaching them. We have people that understand our mission. Our mission is to send our children to college. We think those critical analytical skills need to be developed early.
SIMON: You talk about the mission. Could I get you to recite the mission statement?
Mr. ADAMS: No, not me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ADAMS: Well, you know, there's basically: At Providence-St. Mel we believe, we believe in the creation of inspired lives - that that's the basic text of it and that you have to earn the right to dream.
SIMON: We thoughtfully have some students reciting it.
Unidentified Children: We believe that one must earn the right to dream.
Unidentified Child #2: Our talent, discipline and integrity will be our contribution to a new world, because we believe that we can take this place, this time and these people and make a better place, a better time, and a better people.
SIMON: Tell us some of the innovations, some of the things you've tried at Providence St. Mel that you think other people might take a look at.
Mr. ADAMS: I don't think there's so much innovation. Really, it's things that we've been doing all the time and the things that I grew up when I was going to school. In our case, we offer students stock. The students that do well in school, we have a travel program where we send over 100 youngsters all over the world to study through the auspices of United Airline.
We celebrate learning, we celebrate success. We have honors assemblies that resemble pep rallies where children are applauding that that's you on the honor roll.
SIMON: Still, as I don't have to tell you, there's some teachers especially who've been uncomfortable with the idea of paying rewards to youngsters for achievement. I've told myself over the years maybe it's because they don't get paid that much for teaching.
Mr. ADAMS: I just find that it doesn't make a lot of sense. This is just a symbolic way of saying, you know, you're doing great, we just want to let you know that. But I tell people that tell me that, you know, well, show me your success rate as compared to - show me your record, you know?
Mr. ADAMS: My students are ending up going to the best colleges in the United States.
SIMON: I'm interested in some of the staff positions that you have at Providence St. Mel. For example, learning improvement specialists.
Mr. ADAMS: You know, we kind of change the names around but they're still great teachers. I think one of the misnomers is that we have some kind of a miracle going on. We spend more time teaching. We're in school six days a week. If I could figure out how to raise enough money, I'd have it seven days a week.
Students are in the building from 7:00 a.m., sometimes even earlier, to 5:00 and 6:00 and 7:00 at night. So what do is that we spend more time doing it.
SIMON: Can what you've done at Providence St. Mel's be duplicated?
Mr. ADAMS: I think it can be replicated. We opened up a charter school about three years ago on the South Side of Chicago in the Englewood area, real tough area. I must tell you it's been very difficult dealing with the bureaucracy of the public school.
SIMON: Well, that's what I want to ask you about, the Chicago public schools. 'Cause Arne Duncan, who ran them, is now secretary of education. A man named Ron Huberman is now the CEO of CPS.
Mr. ADAMS: Right.
SIMON: Tell us about some of the problems you've had. You know, because certainly they're both famous for being innovators who want to open doors.
Mr. ADAMS: I think that the new superintendent is doing his very best, but there are just some old ways of doing things in the system that need to be eradicated. If I had my principal out as much as they would like for her to be out, she would be out of school for three days a week. I want her there in the classroom assisting and supporting her staff.
SIMON: Mr. Adams, you've been at Providence St. Mel's how many years now?
Mr. ADAMS: It'll be 38 years in January, I believe. It's a long time.
SIMON: Yeah. Do you ever think about retiring and just going fishing off a dock somewhere?
Mr. ADAMS: Yeah, I think about it. But I think you have to keep a high level of energy. I kind of see myself kind of burning down a little bit. I think I'm much more despondent over the fact that children around this country and especially in our inner cities are not getting an education that I think that's on my watch, so to speak.
So I can't go around, you know, parading around about how successful I had been if in fact we have children who are not being educated every day.
SIMON: Mr. Adams, very nice talking to you.
Mr. ADAMS: My pleasure, sir. Thank you.
SIMON: Paul J. Adams is the founder of Providence St. Mel, an independent school in Chicago, joining us from Chicago Public Radio.
And before we go, one last scene from "The Providence Effect." Graduation day for kindergartners and they're telling their parents and teachers one thing they learned during their first year of school.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Providence Effect")
Unidentified Child #3: I learned how to be a great person.
Unidentified Child #4: I learned how to add and subtract.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: And you can learn more about "The Providence Effect" on our Web site, the new NPR.org.
Unidentified Child #5: I learned how to write my name.
Unidentified Child #6: I learned how to behave on field trips.
(Soundbite of applause)