Ronnie Polaneczky: Memo to Tony Danza: Go teach for real

(Vance Lehmkuhl)
Posted: August 11, 2009

ONE OF THE discussion items on the School Reform Commission's meeting agenda tomorrow is whether to allow Tony Danza to shoot a reality-TV series in which he'll co-teach at a Philadelphia public high school.

Or - to be more candid - whether to pimp our kids' education to an unemployed sit-com actor who wants to kick-start his stalled career on the backs of students who'll be distracted by cameras and microphones.

So I guess you know my opinion on this.

After tomorrow's discussion, the SRC will vote on Danza's proposal at its Aug. 19 meeting.

Obviously, I'm hoping the SRC will tell Danza what school administrators in New York and Massachusetts had the smarts to tell the former "Who's the Boss?" star when he unsuccessfully solicited their kids for academic exploitation:

We're the boss, Tony. Take it elsewhere.

But I'm not holding my breath. This is boneheaded Philly, where we already allow the A&E network- which would air Danza's show - to broadcast the escapades of the Philadelphia Parking Authority.

Each week on "Parking Wars," viewers see heavily edited footage of the PPA at work.

So we're treated to 30 compressed minutes of Philadelphians sobbing, exploding and cursing out PPA workers who gleefully ticket, boot and tow their rides.

Because that's what makes for juicy reality TV - folks behaving badly.

Not surprisingly, the skewed presentation has given our city a national black eye.

"This show is an assault on our city," Meryl Levitz told the Inquirer in June, saying "Parking Wars" had scared tourists away from Philly.

Levitz, head of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism & Marketing Corp., said potential visitors had sent her office about 200 letters and e-mails, vowing never to set foot in our rude, crude and godawful town.

Gee, just imagine what sensitive and thoughtful A&E might do with a big, urban high school, chock full of many children with big, urban challenges.

Neither the school district nor A&E would elaborate on how negotiations are going between the SRC and Danza, 58.

But last week, the former "Taxi" star, without TV crew, attended the district's New Teacher Induction Institute for Improving Teacher Quality. Around the same time, Danza, looking pooped, told viewers of his Daily Danza webcast that he was at a secret location, preparing for a secret project he hoped to announce soon.

And district spokesman Fernando Gallard confirmed that the SRC thinks Danza's project could "demystify" urban teaching by portraying it as a "fantastically challenging and rewarding job," which could help the district recruit new teachers.

"We'd get sign-off from kids and parents, to make sure they're on board with this," he said.

So this thing has the whiff of a done deal about it. At least Danza's not a total academic pretender; he has a history-education degree from the University of Dubuque.

And he seemed kind of sincere in a New York Post story last May, when it looked like he'd be teaching in a New York City school come fall, not a Philly one.

"I was talking about . . . answering the call to service and doing something different with my life," Danza told the Post. "I'm trying to do . . . 'responsible reality.' . . . I don't want to do that other [reality] stuff and I don't want to do a game show and nobody's knocking down my door for acting jobs."

So, what the hell, why not teach?

He added that he hoped "to move into the community and try to change some lives . . . I can smell 60 now and I've got a little bit of wisdom."

A fair enough sentiment, on the face of it. But the presence of cameras reeks of exploiting kids for the greater glory of Danza.

District spokesman Gallard said the SRC would have some say in the editing of the show.

But what does that mean?

Will the show include footage of special-needs kids? Mentally gifted ones? Kids from solid families? From messed-up ones? Pregnant girls? Homeless students commuting from shelters? Rowdy kids getting booted for assault - or returning to the classroom from incarceration?

While we're at it, how will teachers and administrators be portrayed? Will the committed angels and the dead-wood doorstops get equal face time?

In other words, how "real" can a show like this be, without exploiting kids who deserve privacy and without giving a false picture to potential new hires - the very people the SRC hopes to sway our way?

From where I'm standing, "Welcome Back, Danza," or whatever this show will be called, looks to be a sure thing for Danza and A&E, and a total crapshoot for the kids who'll make them both a lot of money.

If Danza wants to teach, he oughta teach. Away from the cameras, like real teachers do.

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly.com/ ronnieblog.

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