Saturday, January 5, 2013

Winter TCA 2013: Blackboard Wars

Blackboard Wars, originally known as Treme High, examines the dramatic transformation of John McDonogh High School in New Orleans, which had a 54% dropout rate. One of the eight high schools in New Orleans, it is considered one of the most dangerous schools in America with a terrible attendance rate, sometimes no more than 60 students present on any given day. The series goes behind the scenes with “education maverick” Steve Barr and “no-nonsense principal” Marvin Thompson as they work on reinventing and reviving the struggling school. The institution became a charter school, despite a lot of initial anger from the community. But, with a new principal, new rules, new dress code, and new teachers, the school now has 409 students enrolled and an attendance rate around 80%. And, if you don’t show up, you get a phone call or home visit. Panelists included Executive Producer Eddie Barbini, Principal Dr. Marvin Thompson, and Education Expert Steve Barr. Some highlights from the Q&A:

Despite the fact that there are a seemingly endless number of cable shows with “Wars” in the title (including the immediately preceding Battleground: Rhino Wars panel from Animal Planet), Barbini defended the choice, saying that they went through about 500 titles, looking for something that felt appropriate. He considers a battle to be truly taking place at the school, and blackboards bring us back to a simpler time. Additionally, there was a 1955 film entitled, Blackboard Jungle, about teachers in New York City, so it also came out of that in a way.

With so much early rejection from the community, it took time, but Barbini mentioned that the show took off quickly, and about 95% of the school eventually got on-board with signing blanket releases for the filming.

Thompson talked a lot about the amount of work that goes into mentoring the students at the school, which include 19-, 20-, and 21-year-old sophomores. He believes that you have to love the students or you will never be able to teach them. These kids “feel disenfranchised” and “see no end to their current situation,” which is an experience that probably cannot be replicated anywhere else. Furthermore, Thompson is a big fan of treating people as individuals, which may have stemmed from his parents treating each of his siblings differently. He believes that this carries over to the students, and if they feel it’s personal, then you have more of a chance in getting through to them.

Over the next two to three years, Barr expects that the graduation rate will be near 90%, with 75% of students going on to postsecondary education. This will certainly help the image in Thompson’s thought that “schools are nothing more than a microcosm of our society, cut and dried.”

Look for this six-part mission to go live in March on OWN.
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