Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Dream School asks: Is our children learning?

Posted By on 10.22.13 at 03:41 PM

Dream School
  • Dream School
After watching the trailer for Dream School, a new six-part miniseries by executive producers Jamie Oliver and Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson on the Sundance Channel, I immediately (and jokingly) made comparisons to Dangerous Minds. The show premiered on October 7, and now, two episodes in, I'm not sure I was too far off.

Dream School is an "adaptation" of a 2011 British television series, Jamie's Dream School, created by Oliver, a well-known chef and restaurateur, who shifted his crusading energies from public school lunches to the curriculum. He enrolled teens who were struggling in conventional schools and enlisted a dozen celebrity "specialists" as instructors in his ersatz school, with mixed results: although one alum now stars on EastEnders, it's unclear how many of the students remained in or returned to school.

The students at the American version are at-risk Los Angeles youth dealing with poverty, violence, and pregnancy. The star-studded faculty includes Jesse Jackson, Soledad O'Brien, and Oliver Stone, plus a tough-love principal and three accredited teachers who will help the teens to graduate or get into their respective grade levels by earning ten high school credits over the course of the "semester."

On the first day, students met their homeroom and drama teacher, the actor David Arquette, who encouraged openness, and then quickly asked students not to google him. Then Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick showed up to teach a history class—no, really. They rambled on during their seemingly interminable ("content-rich," according to the principal) lesson, boring each other along with the students. The students failed the first exam. How will anyone reach these kids?

The second episode was a little better, mostly because of O'Brien, who pushed the students to question society's perceptions of them as well as their own. Conservationist Jeff Corwin engaged the students with interactive teaching guides—that is, animals—and kicked off a friendly competition among the teens. The students received study guides and reviewed the material in groups. The grades for the second exam were significantly higher.

But I was shocked to learn that graders ignored grammar and spelling mistakes, considering only students' understanding of the content. I realize they probably want to reward the students for making an effort. But some of these kids have been out of school for three or four years—when exactly are they supposed to learn these fundamentals? Students who've stayed in school all the way through to 12th grade are often unprepared for college, yet these "educators" hope to hand out a few diplomas at the end of just six weeks. Sundance Channel is billing Dream School as "unscripted" programming, because "reality television" just doesn't have the same cachet, but its creators could take a lesson from real life.

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