Danza says class act isn't just for show
Ohanian Comment: There are lots of negative comments from teachers at the newspaper site, but I think this it's good news that
a) an actor would put this kind of effort into a TV role;
b) that he actually has an education degree;
c) that they didn't choose a Teach for America inductee for this role.
NOTE: Based on its state test results, it has received a GreatSchools Rating of 3 out of 10.
This school has an average Parent Rating of 4 out of 5 stars, based on reviews from 42 parents.
Student population is:
19% Asian/Pacific Islander
50% of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
Philadelphia spends $8,985 per pupil.
By Kristen A. Graham
Mr. Danza was having a bad day.
The laptop acted up. Few students were ready to present their projects, and the group was restless, giggly, distracted. A few snickers erupted when the new reading assignment, the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, was passed out.
"Turn around. Turn around. Put your feet this way," the first-year teacher urged one of his sophomore English students, motioning to the front of the room.
Last year, actor Tony Danza arrived in Philadelphia with Hollywood credentials and a long-ago college education degree but no teaching certificate. With the blessing of city and Philadelphia School District officials, he became a first-year English teacher at Northeast High School and the star of an A&E reality show called Teach, telecast date yet unknown.
Six months in, Danza loves the job. But it's also tougher than he ever imagined, and sometimes he wonders if he's done the right thing, he said in an exclusive interview last week.
"It would be hard in any case, but trying to do it as a TV show makes it even harder," Danza said. "As a first-year teacher, you don't always know what you're talking about. Sometimes you look like a jerk."
His first week in the classroom, he cried three times, he said. Explaining the concept of the omniscient narrator, Danza didn't get his facts quite right, and one of his students straightened him out.
Cameras rolled the whole time. He said he felt like calling every teacher he'd ever had and apologizing because he just didn't get how difficult their jobs were.
So far, Danza has guided his 26 sophomores through units on poetry and social justice, Julius Caesar and Of Mice and Men. Although he teaches only one class, a double period mid-morning, he signs in at 7 a.m. like everyone else. He submits lesson plans, attends daily meetings with his colleagues, and covers others' classes.
Yes, it's a show, but it's also a real 10th-grade English class, a real school year at a real high school in a working-class neighborhood of apartments, twins, and rowhouses.
"I just come to work every day; it's not like there's a makeup trailer outside," said Danza, 58, who lives in Northern Liberties. "I iron my own pants sometimes, pain in the neck that it is."
One of the first times Kelly Barton, Northeast's administrative liaison to Teach, met the actor, Danza was sprawled on his classroom floor with cleaning supplies and a scrub brush. (Danza is a neat freak, and the floor wasn't clean enough for him.)
"You have this image of what a celebrity is, but he's not that way here," Barton said. "When I saw him on his hands and knees, I thought, 'This is a normal guy.' "
And, yes, Danza is swimming in paperwork - student work, interim reports, you name it.
"It ruins my manicure," he said, laughing, extending his hands. "It's overwhelming. There's a lot of rigmarole that teachers are forced to deal with aside from just teaching."
On a recent morning, Danza started his class with a discussion of the previous night's cheerleading competition. Northeast's squad took second place, and students were crushed.
Danza, who often shows up at after-school events to support Northeast students, had attended. He was taken aback by the students' reaction.
"Sometimes you work your butt off, and it doesn't pay off," said Danza, who was dressed in gray pants, a crisp blue button-down, and black Northeast tie. "There should be some pride in what you did."
Then it was on to the vocabulary word of the day, compassion, and the group projects on themes setting up To Kill a Mockingbird, which mostly fizzled. He switched to his backup plan, diving into the novel.
In his neat classroom decorated with student work and motivational posters, Danza was energetic and upbeat. Students ignored the cameraman, three techs sitting along the wall, and the microphone cord peeking out of Danza's pocket.
After class, Danza was philosophical.
"You get a great class, you go home feeling like you just scored on Broadway," he said. "But I'll go home after this class and I'll be sick. You have to have a tremendous amount of determination, because you get up in the morning and you come back again."
Because Danza is not certified, another Northeast teacher, instructional coach David Cohn, sits in on every class, but Cohn said he rarely needed to inject himself into the instruction.
"It's Tony's class," said Cohn, who also coaches other new teachers. Danza is his own toughest critic, and though at first he relied on performing more than teaching, Cohn said, that's no longer the case.
Now, Danza is much more able to focus on the day's goal, and "he works his tail off to prepare lessons," said Cohn.
"And one thing that Tony has that can't be taught or mentored is he has this charisma about him, this ability to connect to people. I know there's a real sense of trust in that classroom. I don't want to underemphasize that, because it's a gift."
Because of an agreement with the production company, students were not permitted to comment. But on Danza's Facebook page, one did: "I attend northeast high school. Mr. Danza is an incredible teacher as well as an incredible man."
There are naysayers - those who say the show could be a distraction, might exploit students.
Danza said it was right to ask those questions. He does.
"I sometimes wonder if it was the right move," he said. "Having said that . . . I think I haven't been a hindrance to the school."
At first, the idea of a TV show filmed at Northeast - the city's largest school, with 3,400 students, half of them considered low-income - overwhelmed principal Linda Carroll.
But now, "Tony is just a teacher here, one of over 200," said Carroll. "He's willing to listen, and he's made remarkable progress."
Last month, the district extended Danza's contract to teach for the rest of the year, citing good academic progress by his students. Teach Productions Inc. will pay the district $3,500 for each of 13 planned episodes and reimburse it for some expenses.
The company also air-conditioned the library, donated money to the school uniform fund, gave to the band and choir, and put on "ExtravaDanza," a song-and-dance benefit that netted $12,000 to be split among Northeast and two other schools.
There's no question that Danza has bonded with the students, from the sunny young woman he helps with Italian homework to the boy he seeks out in the hallway, a young man who rarely bothers to show up at school.
"He's on the cusp of going into the abyss," Danza said. "He looks at me, and I think he's listening, but I'm not sure. But that doesn't mean you stop."
The students in his class were handpicked for personality and diversity.
"You've got third-grade readers and 11th-grade readers in the same class," said Danza.
Could he see himself teaching away from the cameras?
"I could, actually," Danza said. "I had two weeks when the cameras weren't here at all, and they were the best two weeks I had."
The desire to become a teacher came before the idea for the show, Danza said. He told a friend one day that he was thinking of answering President Obama's call for service.
The friend thought Danza might go one step further.
"I said, 'Tony, it would actually make a fascinating show if we chronicled a genuine journey of what it's like to be a teacher,' " remembered Leslie Greif, an executive producer of the show.
What if a show was honest about a big, complicated urban public school? they wondered. What if it inspired other baby boomers to join the teaching ranks?
Still, Danza worries.
"I want the show to work, but I really want to do right by the kids," he said. "At the end of the year, I really want their grades to be a little higher than they were last year, and if somebody asked them about Julius Caesar or To Kill a Mockingbird, they'll know what the heck they're talking about."
He's "hung up" with his students, Danza admitted. He could even see himself back at Northeast in some capacity next year.
"I've got a bad feeling that I'll be here," he said. "I want to see what happens to them."
1. He's big on hygiene: His students are asked to use hand sanitizer from one of two dispensers in the room, and he gave each pupil a small bottle to keep. If students produce the bottles when he asks, they can earn five extra-credit points a semester. "I'm worried about swine flu, like everybody else," Danza said.
2. He wasn't on any Hollywood short lists when he signed on to do Teach, but he had other options. "It's not like people were knocking down my door with the greatest jobs I've ever wanted, but I certainly turned down a lot of stuff that I didn't want to do," said Danza. But later, an opportunity came up he wished he could have taken --he had to say no to a Broadway show, La Cage aux Folles, he said.
3. His students, 15- and 16-year-olds, weren't familiar with his work on Taxi and Who's the Boss. He's tempted to show them snippets, he said. "One of the kids said in the beginning, 'I think my grandmother's a fan.' "
4. Philadelphia wasn't his first choice. A Teach pilot was shot in New York, but then Philadelphia officials began wooing him, Danza said. He toured four high schools - Northeast, Central, Furness, and George Washington - and chose Northeast, one of the city's most diverse schools and its largest, with 3,400 students.
5. Danza loves Philadelphia, he said - honestly. "It's a real city, and yet it's a little more manageable." He lives in Northern Liberties, but another neighborhood has captured his heart. "The Italian district? Ninth Street? Forget it, that's me."
Kristen A. Graham
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