In a scene helpfully titled “Ms. Cobb Gets Hit in the Face,” a blonde recent Duke graduate in her first year teaching at an urban “turnaround” high school rushes to break up a fight between two football players in her class.
One kid takes a swing, and it accidently lands on Ms. Cobb’s jaw. “Ooooh, she got thumped,” a student observes. “You messed up,” another kid adds. Hearty laughter erupts from students as she yells, then storms out of the classroom.
It was just another day on the set of OWN’s “Blackboard Wars,” a six-part reality TV series that chronicles a takeover/rescue of New Orleans’ real-life struggling John McDonough High. Ms. Cobb was hired by The Future is Now Schools, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit with powerful connections to the White House and Hollywood.
Although we were just three episodes into the series for the Cobb incident, the rules of reality TV had already dictated that the story will eventually arc to redeem Ms. Cobb and/or the nonprofit company that took over John Mac, which OWN promoted as “one of the most dangerous schools in America.” It’s “Cops” meets “Dangerous Minds.”
The old Welcome to the Jungle urban trope is tired enough when Hollywood does it to paid actors. But it is appalling to witness grown-ups exploit some of our nation’s most vulnerable young people for ratings and national school reform cred. John Mac supporters in New Orleans recently sent an open letter protesting the series’ caustic and stereotypical portrayals. The noted New Orleans educator, Loyola University’s Andre Perry questioned the show’s impact on the psyche of students and suggested a scholarship might be a better use of Oprah’s resources.
Like many urban reformers, from Cory Booker to Michelle Rhee, Future is Now CEO Steve Barr has a flair for the kind of dramatics that grow empires and keep the corporate contributions rolling in. Barr’s glowing 2009 New Yorker profile cemented his reputation as an urban schools Jedi, months after Rhee landed on Time magazine’s cover wielding a broom. Rhee’s star rocketed when she put on a show for the cameras: inviting a documentary crew to watch her fire a Washington, D.C. principal. Barr made his legend as an eccentric political mastermind who outwitted unionized teachers he later fired and driving around in a decommissioned cop car he bought from his friend, the Fox executive who created the Cops series.
In founding the chain of L.A. charters called Green Dot, which eventually ran 18 schools including one in the Bronx, Barr seems to have “cracked the code,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan is often quoted as saying. Duncan summoned Barr to Washington to meet with a national school union leader to plot to take over a D.C. school later identified at Eastern High School. The plan reportedly derailed after Barr clashed with Rhee.
In March 2011, Barr broke with Green Dot and left the organization’s 16 Los Angeles charters in the hands of chief executive Marco Petruzzi, a former partner at the consulting firm Bain & Company. (Yes, that Bain.)
Barr’s new Future is Now organization immediately set his sights on New Orleans. When you have access to $15 million in corporate contributions plus federal stimulus grants, which Barr had for his turnaround of Watts’ Alain Locke High, you are bound to get results.
But what would be useful to share with the public is not that sexy: What has he learned from these experiments in private management? What are some best teaching practices? How to keep the peace in the hallways and classrooms? What training and professional development is needed for faculty? And how is the long-term public education reform sustainable without philanthropic support of the Eli Broad foundation, which lavishly supported Barr’s California efforts?
The notion that there is one education savior who must replicate himself in every city in America is absurd. In “Blackboard Wars” as Future is Now CEO, Barr is a mostly Wizard of Oz-like figure standing behind the scenes, while the charismatic and seemingly competent principal Dr. T runs the day-to-day operations of the school.
It’s clear what the adults at McDonough, OWN, and the Future is Now have to gain from conducting a school turnaround from inside a fishbowl. But what I don’t see is what the kids will get out of starring in this kind of ruin/poverty porn.
Instead we get this: rowdy John Mac football players, who presumably will one day seek employment, playing King Kong to Ms. Cobb’s Jane on national television. Or cameras gawking as a student tells a school counselor how she became homeless, and that another is off her meds. There’s the girl roaming the hallways nine months pregnant, dilated one centimeter, but wonders aloud how the baby will exit her body. The cameras panning in on an openly gay 16-year-old having an hours-long standoff on the school steps with her mother who vows to stop the “Devil” from winning.
How is this teaching them?
Sometimes, the kids are just kids, looking for mature leadership. In the scene helpfully titled “Ms. Cobb Breaks Down,” we find our blonde heroine rushing to the school to pick up the cheerleading team left stranded by the bus. One frustrated cheerleader mutters under her breath that perhaps they need a new coach, one competent at arranging transportation to games.
Ms. Cobb goes off. “I don’t have to be here right now. It is not my jooob. To be driving you. The fact that I cared enough. To come here. Fifteen minutes out of my way. To the game. When it is raaaaining outside. And the football team apparently doesn’t care enough to get you there means the first thing I should hear from you is “thank you.” The last thing I should hear is that you need a new coach.”
Music strums. Ms. Cobb’s face grows red. Her hands flail.
“It’s like you have no clue of the time and energy I spend. Doing stuff that I should not have to do. And the fact that you are ungrateful?”
She jabs a finger.
“What makes you think I need to do this for you?”
Ms. Cobb cries. Then she polls the cheerleaders via secret ballot on whether she should continue as coach.
Erick, the episode’s 18-year old voice of reason urges calm on both sides. “This is overwhelming,” he sighs, with his elbow planted on a desk and resting his chin in his palm. “I just want to go have fun.”
They are, after all, just kids. It’s a perfectly reasonable request.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington-based writer. If you want to share your thoughts about education reform, email her at NHopkinson@hotmail.com