Reality TV shows that feature sparkling home makeovers or stunning weigh loss make for great entertainment. But a new show beginning this week lifts the "makeover" concept to a whole new level by helping ordinary Americans make a difference for public school students caught in dismal situations.
As a co-host of NBC's upcoming series School Pride, I had the privilege to crisscross the country this past summer and team with local communities to renovate seven rundown schools in Los Angeles and rural Needles, California; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Nashville and Detroit.
Some of these schools hadn't been maintained for decades, and lacked even basic needs like toilets and working lights. The schools may as well have hung out a sign for their students saying, "We don't care about you."
My colleagues and I were humbled by the overwhelming community support we found throughout our journey as we poured millions of dollars into new school facilities.
With the help of our sponsors and the invaluable sweat equity of more than 15,000 volunteers, we helped these seven worn-out schools once again stand tall. The looks of sheer joy when young people saw their new schools made every moment worthwhile.
We left this initial experience uplifted by the level of community support we found along the way, yet highly discouraged by the challenges faced every day by students, teachers and administrators who lack the basic necessities of a healthy learning environment.
Just as the schools we visited transformed before our eyes, so did our roles as reality show hosts. Eventually I took on the role of investigative journalist, posing tough questions to school and government leaders with the cameras rolling. I needed to know, "Who's to blame? How could you let it get to this point?"
In one case, to our disbelief, a school superintendent originally blocked us and our volunteers from repairing a school. Administrators were concerned that their clear need for help would make them look bad on national TV. Ultimately, our cameras -- and the prospect of appearing to be obstacles to change -- caused them to see the light and let us in to help out.
As a result of pressure from thousands of engaged citizens a high-performing school in Detroit was saved from closure and officials at several schools invested significantly more money in security and basic school maintenance. It's amazing what a community can accomplish when it gets organized and gets busy -- and the cameras are rolling.
The documentary film Waiting for 'Superman' has many people talking about the state of education in America. We all want to improve schools, but the details of the debate -- merit pay, teacher tenure, charter schools -- are enough to make your head spin.
Luckily, you don't need to be an expert in school policy to make a difference. With a little organization, communities can come together and start forcing change all by themselves. School Pride proves there's enormous desire among everyday Americans to improve our schools and demand accountability from our leaders.
The movement we're hoping to be part of isn't just about makeovers -- it's about bringing communities together to show young people their future matters. We hope our work will help students achieve educational success by removing physical barriers to learning, while showing viewers at home the human toll of our dysfunctional school bureaucracies.
Ultimately, school leaders and politicians work for us, not the other way around. It's our job to make sure they know we care, and we're watching. School reformer Geoffrey Canada got it right in Waiting for 'Superman' -- it won't be a flying man in tights who will save our kids. We have to save them ourselves.
'School Pride' debuts this Friday, October 15, at 8/7 CST on NBC. The show teams up with online charity DonorsChoose.org, where donations match teachers' requests for classroom materials.
Follow Jacob Soboroff on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jacobsoboroff