Lights, camera ... it's time for class
New TV programs, such as 'Boston Public,' offer a glimpse into school life. But how realistic are they?
NEW YORK — A gun gets fired, a student dressed in diapers by bullies is found trapped in a locker, the principal has a dramatic showdown with an angry parent, and an affair between a student and a teacher is revealed.
It's all part of a typical day at a Boston public high school - at least according to "Boston Public," a new, hour-long drama debuting later this month on the Fox television network.
But "Boston Public" isn't the only TV show moving cameras and lights into public school classrooms this season. "American High," a 13-part documentary series filmed in a Chicago suburban high school, made its debut this summer on Fox, and although low ratings pushed it out of the line-up, its creators say it will reappear later this month.
In the meantime, "The Battle of City Springs," a documentary filmed in a Baltimore elementary school and airing on PBS stations this month, tells the tale of the effort to pump new life into a failing school through the adoption of a controversial new curriculum.
The focus on classroom life comes at a time when school reform is at the forefront of public interest and tops the list of presidential and congressional campaign issues. Indeed, to some observers, the shows may signal a new cachet for education as it settles in alongside other Hollywood workplace dramas like "E.R.," which takes place in a Chicago emergency room, or "NYPD Blue," that lures viewers weekly into law-enforcement battles.
Show creators say that classroom-based dramas, even if occasionally unrealistic, could give viewers some sense of the daily pressures teachers face, shedding more light on what occurs behind school doors.
Some observers say that if a show like "Boston Public" were to achieve high ratings - not an unrealistic hope for anything launched by David Kelley, creator of "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal" - and offer any kind of true-to-life, engaging portrayal of schools, it could be a plus for both education and educators.
Yet others question the motives behind the shows' creation, their accuracy, and the extent to which keeping schools before the gaze of viewers will raise public consciousness in a way that could help reform efforts.
"Clearly, the public is more interested in education," says Amy Wilkins of the Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust. But she doubts that interest is seriously reflected in the fall TV lineup.
Kathy Christie, policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States in Denver, tends to agree. "These things go in cycles," she says. "We've had lawyer shows, we've had doctor shows, now we have teacher shows." Nor is the concept really new, she points out, recalling the popularity of "Room 222" in the 1960s.
Ms. Wilkins says her concern with most TV and movie portrayals of school life is that they focus on dramatic stories of teachers viewed as miracle workers.
"We don't need any more 'Stand and Delivers,' " she says. "What that reinforces is that idea that [education reform] is impossible unless you're a miracle worker."
But on the flip side, she says, "[Boston Public] could be hugely important if it told regular success stories about regular kids." Also, she says, it would greatly help the public image of teachers if they were portrayed "as real, three-dimensional people with texture."
Too much texture?
"Boston Public" is scheduled to begin airing on Oct. 23, but a draft of the first episode was shown to some critics and educators, a number of whom complained that, if anything, the show offered a bit too much "texture."
Scenes of a teacher shooting a gun to get attention in a classroom, the school principal teaching a bully's victim how to defend himself in a fight, and a student mocking teachers on a surprisingly sophisticated Web site, were scoffed at by many observers as unrealistic.
But Mr. Kelley, the show's creator, insists that most of his material comes from tales he's heard of real events in schools, and that his series will bring to light the kinds of things that kids and teachers know regularly take place, but that are too often hidden from the public eye.
It's a show Kelley says is inspired by his admiration for teachers and the important - if often unheralded - role they play in society.
Although Kelley himself attended Belmont Hill School, a private school in the Boston suburbs, the show's coexecutive producer Jonathan Pontell spent time in various Boston-area public schools researching the show.
As a documentary examining the lives of 14 juniors and seniors at Chicago-area Highland Park High, the reality of the events in "American High" is not in question, although some viewers were taken aback by scenes like an intense parent-child confrontation and the frankness with which some students addressed the camera.
Academics aren't the issue
R.J. Cutler, the documentary's creator, admits academics were not what drew him to his subject matter.
"I'm always looking for fascinating stories about interesting people doing things that matter to them," he says. While en route to his 25th high school reunion a few years ago it occurred to him that high school represents "a mythic moment in people's lives, an important time of life we all have in common."
It was during the filming of "American High" that the shooting occurred at Columbine High School, further heightening public interest in the interior life of a high school.
"City Springs" is a completely different piece of work from either "Boston Public" or "American High" in that the intent of the project was to focus on academics, a topic potentially rich in natural drama, insists the documentary's maker Jonathan Palfreman.
The film is "character-driven," he explains, "the story of a strong-willed principal and the drive to reform a school."
One of the intents of the project, says Mr. Palfreman, was to shed a more realistic light on the complexities of school reform. "Education is kind of a perennial topic," he says. "Everyone's always bemoaning it." But what's needed in media presentations, he says, is "more honesty."
That's exactly what's lacking even in nonfiction efforts of most television and print journalists to focus on education, says Frederick Hess, assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. When academics make the headlines, he says, too often it's either a hyped-up account of a school where an education miracle was supposedly achieved, or the sad story of cheating on a test.
While Professor Hess agrees that a realistic portrayal of the challenges faced by school administrators and teachers could help add "context" to the notions many have about troubled schools, he worries that a true-to-life story about genuine solutions would grab few ratings.
"Sustained systemic change, the kind of process that will really transform a school," is unlikely to form the plot line of any TV show or movie, he says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society