Can Reality TV Really Make Over Failing Schools?

Posted by Alexandra Spunt


The plight of
America’s public schools is garnering a lot of attention, from a nearly billion-dollar commitment from the President to turn around the worst schools to a much-discussed new documentary Waiting for Superman.

Now, reality TV is getting into the mix with tonight's premiere of a new reality show called School Pride. The show is applying the reality makeover model to something other than fashion, weight loss, or home improvement. Instead, School Pride will seek to give some seriously broke down schools a whole new look.

The series is executive produced by Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Denise Cramsey (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition), along with four additional cohosts. We caught up with one of them, Jacob Soboroff, to hear about the show and his experience.

GOOD: The country's failing public schools are getting a lot of attention these days—where does "School Pride" fit into that conversation?

Jacob Soboroff: School Pride is an effort to empower communities to take control of their schools. This summer I—along with my co-hosts Tom Stroup, Kym Whitley and Susie Castillo—worked with the people of Compton in Los Angeles, Baton Rouge, Nashville, Detroit, and a small California town called Needles to renovate seven different schools in desperate need of help. Some of these schools literally had rats, broken water fountains, and ceiling tiles that were falling out. But while our show is centered around the idea of making over schools in great need, this show isn't about makeovers. The makeover is a tool to get people talking about community, volunteerism, and fixing America's broken schools.

G: Could you give us a quick breakdown of how the process worked?

JS: We sent out word that we were looking to help run-down schools through social networks and got a ton of response. The schools we worked with were picked based on need and the willingness of the community to work with us because it was essential that the communities were invested in and supportive of these projects. We had over 15,000 volunteers work with us this summer, so on that front we were certainly successful. We'd do all these projects in one week each, and we couldn't have done it without the sweat equity of all of these folks and equally as important donations from local and national businesses, be they general contractors or landscapers from the neighborhood, or national corporations that supplied building materials, technology, or furniture.

G: Do you think applying the reality-show makeover model to more noble causes—like renovating schools—could start a new trend in reality TV?

JS: I certainly hope so. As a primetime NBC reality show, we have the opportunity to reach a huge audience, and it might not be the audience that will be keyed into what is going on with education policy or even see the fantastic documentary Waiting for Superman, for that matter. But it is an audience that likes to be inspired and entertained, and our show is certainly entertaining. You might laugh, you might cry, you might get angry or all of the above. At the end of the day, you will walk away informed, which really shows the power of this genre of TV. There aren't many reality TV shows where you'll see Governor Schwarzenegger, the head of the schools in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Louisiana, and the mayor of the second largest city in America. It's not a documentary and it's not nightly news, but it's certainly important information.

G: Is the ultimate message that any school can do this? How realistic is that?

JS: Let's be honest: Not every community is going to get the School Pride treatment and have national corporate sponsors and thousands of volunteers, but that's not the model we want people to emulate. The ultimate message of our show is this: You don't need to be an expert in school policy to make a difference. It just takes a little bit of local organization and communities can come together and start forcing change all by themselves. And even on an individual level from the comfort of your home, School Pride gives you the opportunity to give back. We have a partnership with Donors Choose, where you candonate money or get involved with classroom projects at a school locally anywhere across the country.

G: Do you have a favorite story from your time at these schools?

JS: I had quite an experience crawling under a building with the exterminator to find rodents, insects and a giant animal skeleton of some kind. And that was just one experience. Working with over 15,000 different people this summer was extraordinary and I have met folks across the country who I will never forget, some of them I will know for the rest of my life.