Redondo Beach school leader debuts in star-studded reality show
Imagine walking into class on the first day of high school and learning that your teacher is 50 Cent. Or Oliver Stone. Or Suze Orman. Or David Arquette. Or Jesse Jackson.
That’s what really happened to a group of high school dropouts from around Los Angeles in “Dream School,” a soon-to-begin reality TV series that prominently features Steven Keller, superintendent of the Redondo Beach Unified School District, as the principal.
The premise of the show: Fifteen wayward students are given four weeks to pass four tests and earn 10 credits in what amounts to their final chance to graduate high school on time.
How Keller got involved with a production that has no ties to his suburban school district is one of those things that can happen only when you live and work in close proximity to Hollywood. Keller was minding his own business when he got a call from an old boss, whose daughter is a producer on the show.
“I chuckled at getting the call,” Keller said. “I haven’t been a principal for 15 years. My first question was: Do I have the ability to get back on the bike?”
He decided to go for it. And so it came to pass that Keller became a key character on the cast of a six-part, unscripted series that premiers Oct. 7 on the Sundance Channel. The veteran educator stresses that he took vacation days or weekends to work at the school, whose classes took place in a mansion in Eagle Rock this past spring.
In addition to capitalizing on the everyday dramas of high school life, “Dream School” aims to shine a spotlight on how, for millions of students across the nation, staying on the path to graduation is like trying to walk across a greasy balance beam a mile long.
Nicole DeFusco, a vice president of original programming at the Sundance Channel, said the aim is also to convey a message of hope.
“One person can make a difference,” she said. “I hope the audience remembers how to be awe-inspired and to remember that people can overcome rough starts. People can overcome being given not a great chance.”
The pilot opens with a flash on the screen of the number 26. To wit: So large is the dropout rate among U.S. high schools that one student gets the boot or calls it quits every 26 seconds.
(The nation’s dropout rate — that is, the percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and have not earned a high school credential — has actually improved in recent years, from 12 percent in 2007 to 7 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Education.)
Regardless of the veracity of the 26-second statistic, the struggles of the 15 students are all too real.
There is Mary, a single, teen mom who has lost too many friends to violence. Alan, born Alyssa, a transgender teen who was once a good student until bullies chased her out. Devon, who dropped out after eighth grade to care for his cancer-stricken mother before she succumbed. Tyla, who has been kicked out of seven schools for fighting. And Mike, who was expelled for punching a principal.
Not all of them are poor. Sam was kicked out of a private school for smoking.
The students agreed to participate in the show knowing only that they would be on TV, and that their teachers were highly successful in their fields. So when they arrive fresh off the bus to meet Keller on the steps of the school, they appear merely curious, maybe even a little eager. But it isn’t until Keller introduces them to their first teacher — Curtis James Jackson III, aka 50 Cent — that they become visibly amazed.
At the cue, out of the school’s front door and down the steps hustles a sport-coat clad Mr. Jackson, creator of such mega-hits as “In Da Club,” whose video features him shirtless, covered in tats and grinding with women on the dance floor.
(Jackson is also one of the show’s two executive producers, the other being celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.)
“How many of you like money?” Jackson asks, prompting a chorus of affirmation among the teens. “If you don’t actually graduate, chances are you’ll make a million dollars less than someone who does graduate in your entire lifetime. … Whatever you’re passionate about, this is your opportunity to get to it.”
Celebrities or no celebrities, it wouldn’t be reality TV if the drama didn’t kick in quickly, and on this score, the pilot doesn’t disappoint. The first hint of it occurs not long after the ringing of the first school bell.
Jackson — who counts among his youthful indiscretions the selling of crack cocaine — finds himself thrust into the unfamiliar role of rule enforcer when trying to collect the students’ cellphones. One of the students, a tough-looking dude wearing earplugs, claims not to have one, putting the “teacher” in a position of having to assess the validity of the claim.
“How about you buy me a phone and I’ll give it to you,” the kid cracks.
One theme that emerges: no matter your level of fame or success, teaching is not easy.
Students, for instance, are initially wowed to meet one of their history professors, Academy Award-winning director Oliver Stone. But halfway through the first lesson, which Stone delivers in conjunction with American University historian Peter Kuznick, the students are snoring.
With a wink to the euphemistic syntax of the education world, Keller refers to the teachers’ history lesson as “content rich.” Putting a finer point on it, he adds: “They can finger-point all they want, but honestly, they’re both failing.”
A school that is filled with disadvantaged students means the teachers, too, start off with a disadvantage. The students in Stone’s history class appeared to be starting from scratch, unaware of some of the most basic givens. One student thought World War II was fought during the 19th century. (“No, that’s the Civil War,” corrects Stone.)
DeFusco said watching the masters of certain domains learn the ropes of another — teaching — is part of the show’s appeal.
“Some of them came out of the first day sweating,” she said, but she noted that those who stumbled also adjusted their approach. “We didn’t have one teacher who failed to really reach the kids.”
Sadly, not all of the students earned the right to participate in a graduation ceremony at the end. DeFusco said the production company put those students in contact with resources to help them continue their studies.
As for Keller, if the pilot episode is any indication, “Dream School” kept him plenty busy. Over the course of it, he chases down underage students smoking on campus, deals with a difficult parent over the phone, consoles a student after the death of two friends and sternly addresses a girl who made a fantastical excuse for playing hooky. (“A hawk kidnapped my dog.”)
“I’m one of those people who tends to be more on the critical side,” he said. “But I believe (the show) is pretty authentic. … People might be critical and say, ‘They know there’s a camera on them.’ You ask any kid, after the first day, the cameras become just window blinds. They blend in.”