The lottery scene in which children learn what kind of school they’ll attend in the trailer for Waiting for Superman, the Davis Guggenheim film about public education in America, is so painful that I can imagine many movie goers giving the movie a pass.

A movie fact data base has this description:

Plot: Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim reminds us that education “statistics” have names: Anthony, Francisco, Bianca…

An article in City Journal also begins with this kind of lottery scene:

Once the final name was called, disappointment weighed heavily on the faces of the unlucky. Nothing less was at stake than the future of 1,250 children. Democracy Prep’s was the last of the charter-school lotteries for the entering class of 2010, which will be known within the school as the “College Class of 2021.” Most students whose names weren’t called will enter one of Harlem’s dreadful traditional public schools, from which they’re as likely to drop out as graduate.

So for children whose parents can’t afford to pay private-school tuition or move to neighborhoods with good public schools, a simple roll of the dice determines whether or not they will get a quality education. That is horribly unfair to the losers. But the lotteries are proving how good New York City’s charter schools are-and helping fuel the charters’ growth in Gotham.

The City Journal article, by Marcus Winters, a Manhattan Institute fellow and education researcher, describes Democracy Prep, which is the highest-performing school in Harlem and one of the 20 highest-performing middle schools in New York.  It’s a hop skip and a jump, if that far, from one of the most toxic schools in the city and draws children from the same neighborhoods. What has made the difference?

Democracy Prep doesn’t boast a special curriculum, fancy classroom-management techniques, or smaller-than-average class sizes. Its success-like that of many good charter schools-has three primary ingredients: efficient use of funds, a culture of high expectations, and a “no excuses” approach to school discipline. …

Democracy Prep saves money by employing many young teachers, substituting 401(k)-style plans for the gold-plated, defined-benefit pensions bestowed in the traditional public sector, and eliminating administrative bloat. Thanks to these savings, the school can pay its teachers 10 percent above the traditional public school pay scale. The school also has money left over to provide students with enriching activities: before they graduate, Democracy Prep’s kids, many of whom had rarely ventured out of their neighborhood, will have visited more than 75 college campuses and set foot on five continents.

The article adds that discipline is perhaps the most important element of the school’s success.