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Waiting for "The Lottery"

5/11/2010, 8:15 p.m.
A new film on Harlem Success Academy raises a question – why aren’t there more across the country? ...

A new film on Harlem Success Academy raises a question – why aren’t there more across the country?

  Parents on both sides of the charter school debate attend a public hearing to expand Harlem Success Academy into a building currently used for a zone school in Harlem.
Eric Sr. watches the list of lottery winners as they are called during the public lottery. He is hopeful that Eric Jr. will win a spot at Harlem Success Academy.
Christian and his father Emil Yoansan nervously wait for Christian’s name to be called. Each child entered into the lottery stood a one in seven chance of winning a spot at the charter school.  (Photos courtesy of “The Lottery” film.)

In white lettering against a black backdrop, “The Lottery,” an official selection of Boston’s Independent Film Festival (IFF Boston), starts with poignant statistics: “The average black or Latino 12th grader reads at the same level as the average white 8th grader.”

Another graphic shows that in 19 of the 23 districted Harlem schools, fewer than 50 percent of the students read at grade level.

Despite the numbers, “The Lottery” film director Madeleine Sackler didn’t have the usual take.

 “Most Americans,” Sackler said, “believe that the academic achievement gap is the result of a lack of interest in education or a lack of family structure in low-income communities.”

But what she discovered was completely different. It started two years ago when she happened to watch a local news story on the lottery system for admission to the Harlem Success Academy.

“I saw thousands of parents who wanted a better education for their children,” Sackler said. “After one woman told me that the achievement gap doesn’t matter because ‘we will always need shoe shiners,’ I began work.”

“The Lottery” centers around four kindergarten-aged charter school hopefuls:  Ameenah, Christian, Eric Jr., and Greg Jr., as they vie for chance-placement at Harlem Success Academy.

Determined to tell their story, Sackler recruited these families at Harlem Success Academy information sessions and followed them for three months.

The four families were among 3,000 in attendance at the 2009 public lottery to fill 475 seats.

Each family has unique circumstances: Ameenah and her mom, who is deaf, receive public assistance; Christian and his father are separated from his mother and brother due to an immigration issue; Greg Jr. and his mom live apart from his father who is serving a 25-to-life prison sentence; Eric Jr. lives with both parents — his father is a union bus driver, and his mother is working toward her teaching credential.