Susie Castillo, former Miss USA and MTV host, says succinctly, "I steer clear of reality shows. Most of them are crap." It's a view I share, at least when it comes to makeover shows. And yet NBC's School Pride which premieres on October 15 may have viewers rethinking the value of such programs. It features Castillo -- along with three others -- tackling the urgent need to give America's children safe and appealing schools in which to learn.
The show's premise is hardly revolutionary: the four telegenic hosts arrive at a school that is virtually crumbling around its student body and vow to overhaul it in the space of seven days (10 days in the premiere.) But the innovative -- and tear-inducing -- twist is that the entire community is enlisted in the effort. In the pilot sent to me by NBC, the focus is on Enterprise Middle School in Compton, California. Rats, lack of equipment, a football field full of gopher holes and a seemingly indifferent principal are just some of the issues that plague the school. The two young men -- Angel and James -- who narrate the school's woes are so appealing and intelligent that you pray for someone to intervene on their behalf. But the surprise is that all the students and faculty are enlisted to help in the school's makeover. You see them painting, cleaning, and doing all the other hard work necessary to turn their school around.
Additionally, local businesses -- including a construction company -- are asked to volunteer their labor and materials in the effort. Parents join in too. If it takes a village to raise a child, here it takes a city to make a school shine. I defy anyone to watch the first show and not shed a tear as the school system's facilities director -- and father of an Enterprise student -- breaks down when he sees the school's newly renovated gym. It is TV at its very best. No one individual or family benefits from the good work done on School Pride. Instead an entire community, and perhaps nation, shares in the investment. As Castillo says, "Better learning environments result in increased test scores." California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger makes an appearance at the renovated school, though he appears to blame lots of others for the sorry state of California schools before finally admitting "government" might have a role to play. Still, the students and faculty seem awestruck by his appearance at Enterprise.
Susie Castillo -- known for her role on House of Payne and her many hosting gigs as well as that Miss USA crown -- urges students and parents at schools everywhere to "watch School Pride, take the ideas and go fix up your school. Don't wait for a TV show to do it. Empower yourselves." She knows whereof she speaks. Growing up the child of a single mom in Methuen, MA, she dreamed of being an actor. Toward that end, she decided that winning a national title would give her a leg up in Hollywood. "But pageants are expensive and my mom didn't have the money. So I went door to door to local businesses and asked them to sponsor me. Some gave me $20, some gave me $100."
This is similar to the model used -- on a much grander scale -- by School Pride. "We ask for the support of businesses in the community," says Castillo. "We asked Home Depot, Bing, Microsoft... and anyone can do that. You just have to be willing to make the call." She points to a school in Detroit which is featured on the show. A Community and Media Arts school, it was lacking equipment. Thanks to donations from businesses, the school now has an entire Media Arts Center with state-of-the art facilities.
School Pride is more about the students than about the buildings, and you won't easily forget the ones you meet on this show. Castillo says of Angel from Compton, "That young man ripped my heart out of my chest. He was so focused. He is the first generation in his family born in this country, and he wants to be President. He's got everything planned out for his future, just like I did at his age." At the end of the first show, you find out that Angel was his class valedictorian. It's hard not to cheer for him.
The show's executive producers are Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Denise Cramsey (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and True Beauty). Castillo is more than just a beautiful face; she has a degree in Interior Architecture and Design and actually helps with redesigning classrooms. She also identifies strongly with many of the students and hopes to send them a message: "You're not stuck at any point in your life. There's a big world out there and you can dream big."
School Pride spent the summer fixing up schools in California, Michigan, Louisiana and Tennessee. When the show airs on Friday, October 15 at 8:00 p.m., I urge families across the country to tune in for an hour of hope and possibilities. It is the perfect antidote to the vapid and violent programming that so often dominates our televisions. Plus, if it snags good ratings, School Pride might be coming to a community near you.