The educational system and its failures and successes are always relevant, but lately our nation’s schools have been moved to the forefront of our pop-culture sensibilities with David Guggenheim‘s disheartening documentary, “Waiting for Superman.” In promoting the new film, Guggenheim showed us the worst of our schools — highlighting everything from budget problems to unqualified teachers.
NBC’s brand-new renovation show, “School Pride,” hopes to inspire some hope in a seemingly hopeless situation. “There are endless problems with the education system in this country – I’m not trying to pretend there aren’t,” executive producer Denise Cramsey tells Zap2it. “But the one thing we found in ‘School Pride’ is that there’s a lot to be positive about. There are really great teachers, and there are really smart, mature students who care about their communities. Hopefully, when the show comes on, people will find a little hope in that. The education system is worth saving for these people.”
The idea was presented to Cramsey by actress and fellow executive producer Cheryl Hines. “Cheryl was doing these school makeovers in her real life. She was helping two elementary schools in Compton to go out to the community and ask for donations and raise some money and do their own renovating,” Cramsey explains. Cramsey had worked on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” for four years, so she knew a thing or two about renovating places quickly. Still, the challenges of working on a school instead of a house did surprise her.
With only seven days to renovate an entire school, the “School Pride” team generally can’t just bulldoze a place and start from scratch – so they’ve got to play the hand they’re dealt. “A lot of these schools have lead issues and asbestos issues that we have to abate before we can get started on the work. The floorplan and the windows and everything, they’re not necessarily conducive to modern design, so we have to figure out solutions for that.”
The most harrowing part of the week-long journey isn’t the asbestos or the lead, though. Cramsey says, “The hardest part is waiting for the volunteers to show up. People sign up online and tell the schools that they’re going to be there, but that first day when you’re waiting to see if they’re going to show, that’s the most tense part. We can’t do it without them.”
In fact, having gung-ho volunteers is so essential to the plan that while choosing the schools, communities were pre-screened for involvement and willingness to participate. A call was put out over various social networking services. “We just said said hey, if you have a school that’s in bad shape, let us know about it,” she says. “So students sent us tapes. They’d tour us through the school and interview their teachers and talk about what they wanted to get fixed at their schools.”
Then came the community screening. “We needed a really passionate, involved community,” explains Cramsey. “We had to know that there was a strong PTA and a strong teacher’s group because it’s all volunteers and that’s what we rely on.”
The team assembled to lead the communities brings an effusive chemistry to the show, which keeps it from becoming too earnest. The leader, Tom Stroup, is a SWAT commander from Orlando who first submitted his SWAT Workout infomercial tape to Cramsey for consideration.
It’s Kym Whitley who injects the humor into the show, but she’s not just
a comedian – she’s also a former substitute teacher who carries a tool
belt full of candy around the job sites to keep those kids’ sugar buzzes
Jacob Soboroff, of AMC, is has a contagious curiosity and a knack for inspiring school boards to commit to change. His inquisitive personality lends an interesting investigative slant to the show — he’s the one who teaches you things without tipping you off that lessons are creeping into your entertainment.
Susie Castillo is easily recognizable as a former Miss U.S.A. and an MTV VJ. “She just speaks the language of kids, so we rely on her a lot to pull information and stories out of these main characters,” says Cramsey.
As much as we love the team, it’s the students, teachers, and parents who make the show the heart-wrenching tearjerker that it is. (And we mean that in a good way!) Cramsey recalls one of her favorite kids – Frank, from Baton Rouge, LA. “When we got down there and met Frank we realized that he was a fifth grader who had graduated. He’d already left this school,” she says. “He told us he sent the tape because he wanted to fix the school for the next generation. He came every single day and he volunteered and he brought his friends, and his face at the end when he sees that school is just amazing. And Frank’s what, 11 years old? It’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen.”
She also shares a story of Miss Candy, a Nashville teacher whose school was devastated by the recent floods. In the middle of the disaster, Miss Candy and her husband bravely returned to the school to try to salvage the computers by moving them to the roof, where they might escape the moisture. Unfortunately, they got trapped up there.
“The fire captain who rescued her turned out to have been one of her students 20 years ago. He put the ladder up and he said ‘Miss Candy, what are you doing up there?'” Cramsey laughs.
If you have kids — or even if you simply were a kid, once upon a time — “School Pride” is a can’t miss on Friday nights at 8 p.m. EST. It will disturb you, certainly, as it’s hard to imagine some of these schools ever having served their purpose. Still, the students and teachers who enter these dilapidated buildings every day manage to feel a sense of pride in what happens there. The show will inspire you, make you laugh, and almost certainly make you cry. We did. A lot.
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Photo Credit: NBC