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?
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."