School Pride gives hope — and mixed messages

It’s a familiar argument by leading education reformers: school improvement isn’t about the bricks and mortar, it’s about the people in the classroom. NBC’s School Pride takes an entirely different approach, though. The new reality makeover show features a comedian, journalist, SWAT commander and former Miss USA as they head to schools that are falling apart to rebuild them in just 10 days with the help of students, teachers and other volunteers.

The pilot doesn’t mention a single statistic about Enterprise Middle School in Compton, California, the first school slated for a makeover. Not its test scores (just 33 percent of students were proficient or advanced in English and math in 2008-2009); not the school’s suspension rate (27.7 percent); not the percentage of students on free or reduced-price lunch (71 percent in 2007-2008); not even its size (624 students).

Instead, we are meant to know this is a failing school because there are gophers in the football field, broken water fountains, bugs, leaky roofs and a dozen different comparisons you can make to prison. It’s obviously a school in need of repair.

No one would begrudge these students and teachers the opportunity to have their school completely renovated. Indeed, there are several touching moments that show what a difference some paint and bookshelves can make –- if in nothing else but attitude.

Although it’s never acknowledged on air, Executive Producer Denise Cramsey is under no illusions that a simple makeover can solve all of the problems our schools face.

“Fixing the school environment is not going to fix education,” she told the New York Times. “But studies prove that a better learning environment does lead to better learning.”

But it seems like School Pride can’t quite decide if this is the type of change that can happen anywhere any time, or something that needs the weight of a multibillion-dollar corporation like NBC behind it.

When volunteers check in on day one, a plastic container is on the table for any donation they feel like contributing, and SWAT commander Tom Stroup goes to a local construction company to ask for help — making it clear that they won’t be paid for the work. At the same time, big-name sponsors like Home Depot, Wal-Mart and Microsoft covered most of the renovation costs and, in return, were rewarded with product placement on prime time TV, the Times says. (Indeed, Microsoft’s logo is painted above at least one doorway in the renovated school.) It’s not exactly the kind of deal individual schools could cut on their own.

A science teacher early on in the show declares, “We really need someone from the outside to come and help us rebuild our school.” But journalist Jacob Soboroff — on a quest to determine who is to blame for the state of our schools — declares, after an interview with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, that “People have the power to change their own schools and their own community and take charge of their own education.”

As Schwarzenegger points out, there’s a long list of potential people to blame (including the government, he says.) The truth is, there’s no easy answer. Perhaps that’s why it’s also unclear who should — and, more importantly, could — provide solutions as well.