School Pride debuts tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern on NBC.
It’s hard not to like School Pride. It’s also hard not to hate it. At a time when the United States is earnestly debating just what it will take to finally have an educational system that can compete with the educational systems in other countries, School Pride seems to think that what schools really need is a nebulously larger amount of “awareness” and a fresh coat of paint. And, also, lots and lots of money from corporate donors. School Pride is like a show made for people who want to think that we don’t really need a federal government because aren’t there more than enough reality shows out there helping the less fortunate? Indeed, if we eventually just get enough reality shows, maybe they can solve everybody’s problems, one case at a time!
And yet there is that essential likability at the center of School Pride. For one thing, the people it finds to focus this episode on are all, to a person, incredibly compelling and charismatic. The central idea of the show is that a small team of school improvement gurus will descend on one school and make it better, largely through taking messy and dilapidated classrooms and making them look brand new. In the premiere, the school the team goes to is Enterprise Middle School in Compton, Calif., which is pretty much falling apart at the seams, with a restroom that has no stall for the toilet, a football field that’s overgrown and weedy (and lacks a scoreboard), and a science lab where the pull-down screen has mold all over it. The team has been called here by two almost painfully earnest eighth-grade boys named James and Angel, who become the soul of the episode, along with their English teacher, Ms. Mason. All of these people are instantly engaging, drawing the audience into the story of just how this school is going to get better.
The problem comes from just about everything else. For starters, the team that’s been assembled consists of the following: a former Miss USA and designer, a political journalist, a comedian (who, to be fair, is a former teacher), and a SWAT commander. Obviously, there’s a need to entertain while doing a reality show. Obviously, figures like Jamie Oliver, whose Food Revolution remains the best example of this kind of reality TV because of his ability to entertain while educating, are few and far between. And obviously, these people really care about what they’re doing. But for the most part, these are people who have been trained to engage with the problems of education on a cosmetic level. Everybody believes that improving educational facilities in the United States would be a good thing, since so many of them are in shambles. At the same time, School Pride wants us to believe that a new coat of paint is the only thing standing between the current state of educational affairs and making sure that every kid gets a grade-A education.
There’s an attempt made to engage with the issues behind low test scores and poor education on the part of journalist Jacob, but these issues mostly get sent to the background, for a simple, feel-good interview with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger about how his administration is going to keep working to make schools better. (And what does he care? He’s out of office in a few months anyway.) And comedian/ex-teacher Kym is pretty good at talking to the other teachers at the school and figuring out what their big struggles are, while SWAT commander/host Tom is good at taking viewers through the institutional issues that hold back the school in some ways, like how a long list of work orders gets backed up when there’s only one man to work on them. (There’s a fantastic segment where Tom and Kym discover a room full of much-needed supplies that has apparently just been hidden away from the teachers at the school.) Furthermore, the rooms designed by former Miss USA/designer Susie are highly attractive and look like they function very well as well. Everyone involved in this production – including its most famous producer, Cheryl Hines – is deeply dedicated to making a difference. And that’s great!
The problem comes when the show is unable or unwilling to grapple with the deep, systemic problems in the American education system. It’s fine to believe that all kids need are better facilities to work with, but where’s the money going to come from to spruce up those facilities? In School Pride, it mostly comes from local and corporate donors, who hand over either funds or equipment designed to help the producers bring these classrooms up to state-of-the-art status as quickly as possible. In the premiere, this means that Microsoft helps build one new room (which ends up with a large “MICROSOFT” emblazoned on one wall), while People magazine shells out the cash to build a better reading room that is then helpfully dubbed the “People Magazine Reading Room” by all involved – even the teachers! (And the irony of People, a famously glossy magazine with a minimum of text, being behind a “reading room” is apparently lost on the show.)
No one at Enterprise can afford to look a gift horse in the mouth. And, ultimately, if the students there learn how to use computers, who cares if they do so with a giant Microsoft logo looking down on them? If they pick up a love of reading, who cares if they always associate that love with People magazine? The problem comes from the show’s apparent belief that both its heart and corporate largesse are limitless. Fixing schools in the United States is going to be a huge, huge dilemma, and one that will take decades of work and likely trillions of dollars. It’s easy enough for a corporation to get on board at the level of one school or perhaps even a whole school district. But all of the schools in a state? Or in the nation? That’s harder to swallow, even for the most successful corporate bodies. At some point, there’s going to need to be an earnest debate about how government can create better schools, and while both conservatives and liberals have advanced interesting ideas in this regard, the show does its best to completely avoid this question of systemic decay, the better to pile on the feel-good at the end.
What School Pride does isn’t entirely worthless. It’s good that the education system’s problems in the United States are getting some press now, and that may be thanks to this show, the president’s new initiative in this regard, and the movie Waiting for “Superman.” The way that it depicts how kids in inner cities can often turn to their teachers as surrogate parental figures is never overstated, yet heartwarming all the same. And, again, it’s terrific that someone is willing to get their elbows dirty with the work of cleaning up and repairing these school districts.
The problem comes months or years from now, when the construction work – done over 10 days, the better for the heartwarming “fixer-upper” reality TV format – starts to fall apart, and the kids have to go back to an overgrown football field and a moldy old science lab. Where will the money to fix the school up come from then? And what happens to the thousands of hurting schools that won’t be visited by this show? School Pride wants to raise awareness, but it doesn’t go out of its way to educate because that would get in the way of easy reality TV show dramatic beats.
- As suggested by the title, I screened two additional episodes. Both have the same issues as the first episode, but the second adds the enjoyable element of a bunch of young teachers from Teach for America, who I kept suspecting have been having lots and lots of sex (though that may be because they're all young twentysomethings, and TV has conditioned me to think all they're good for is getting naked). The third is superficially more dramatic, because it's about a school that was ruined in a flood, but it's also more depressing, because that school, well, most of the kids there were white, unlike the other two schools in the series. Apparently, it takes a disaster to knock that school out, not neglect.