Abbott Elementary, ABC’s new sitcom centering on a fictional Philadelphia public school, will get a sneak peek premiere Tuesday.
The show was created by and stars Quinta Brunson, the West Philly-raised comedian and actor, who certainly has source material to work with: Her mother was a kindergarten teacher in the district. (She graduated from a now-closed school, the Charter High School of Architecture and Design, herself.)
But as the Philadelphia School District reporter for the past decade plus, I was both curious and a little skeptical. But I wanted a real expert to weigh in, so I asked veteran district teacher Sharahn Santana to watch two episodes with me.
We found plenty to like about the mockumentary-style show and fewer “that would never actually happen” moments than we were expecting.
The ‘yep, that happens’ moments
Brunson plays Janine Teagues, a starry-eyed second grade teacher at Abbott Elementary, one of just a few new teachers who made it to the second year in the district. (That’s conceivable — turnover among early-career teachers is quite high nationally; nearly 50% leave the profession during the first five years.)
“Why can’t any of you stick it out longer than two years? More turnovers than a bakery!” said Sheryl Lee Ralph’s character, Barbara Howard, a seen-it-all veteran. (Ralph, like Brunson, has her own Philly bona fides — she lives in town and is married to State Sen. Vincent Hughes.)
Lack of funds
Teaching in Philly, on screen and in real life, is tough in part because of the funds available to schools.
“The main problem in the school district is no money,” Brunson-as-Teagues said on screen in the pilot.
Next to me, Santana nodded: Philadelphia’s funding struggles are ongoing, affecting everything from building conditions and supplies to extra-curriculars and staffing levels. In fact, a historic education-funding trial is now underway in Harrisburg, alleging that poor districts like Philadelphia don’t get their fair share from the state.
That South Philly teacher
Santana loved the camaraderie between Brunson’s character and her fellow teachers: It felt like the faculty rooms she’s worked in, close-knit and vital.
And we both laughed out loud at Lisa Ann Walter’s Melissa Schemmenti, a wisecracking teacher straight out of South Philly, with an accent to match. (Seemed a little thick to my ears, but not too far off.)
“She works at my school,” said Santana, who teaches English now at Parkway Northwest High School and has also worked at Penrose Elementary in Southwest Philadelphia.
And yes, when a guy Schemmenti knows — don’t ask how — brings his truck to Abbott, coming through with free classroom rugs to save the day for the kids, of course they’re Eagles rugs.
“Teachers are resourceful,” said Santana. “That truck backing up, that’s not that far-fetched.”
Buildings woes and Boyz II Men
Abbott’s building needs work — in one scene, water spouts out of a toilet like a geyser. A new teacher is beside himself; Teagues is nonplussed. Get used to it, her shrug says.
“There’s always a problem in our bathrooms, there’s not water or the toilets don’t flush properly,” Santana said.
In one episode, Teagues is frustrated by a dim hallway where most lights are flickering or broken. The building engineer promises to fix them, noting that he makes “most electrical things work with a system I’ve had since 1992.” (That character, Mr. Johnson, played by William Stanford Davis, walks down the hallway singing Boyz II Men songs, naturally.)
There were plenty of other nods to Philly culture — teachers going to the corner store for cheesesteaks at lunch, a local obsession with Action News and Jim Gardner.
When a teacher vacancy cropped up at Abbott suddenly (that happens, Santana confirms), the school scrambles to cover the class temporarily. The building engineer is called in to cover the class.
“Now that’s realistic,” said Santana, laughing. This year has been tough with staff and substitute shortages nationwide, and especially so in the district. (But we both shook our heads “no way” when a long-term sub showed up right away.)
Brunson’s Teagues feels dispirited at times, but her colleagues set her straight. Teachers aren’t just teachers. They’re social workers, and parents, and cheerleaders, too.
“We do this because we’re supposed to,” Schimmenti tells Teagues. “It’s a call, you answered.”
The ‘no way’ moments
The Abbott classes look pretty small by Philly standards. District classes max out at 33 in the higher grades, 30 for kindergarten through second grade. The Abbott classes looked smaller when the camera panned to them.
The principal character didn’t ring true with Santana. Abbott Elementary’s Ava Coleman, played by Janelle James, is self-involved and ineffective, and that’s not been Santana’s experience.
“But I know people have had that experience, lots of people,” Santana said.
And Santana, who is a building representative for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, shook her head when Principal Coleman cancelled the teachers’ lunch period to hold a meeting to ferret out who had reported her to the superintendent. That wouldn’t fly, she said.
“You can’t just cancel lunch!” said Santana.
Santana and I indulged a little “which actors would play us?” dreaming. Taraji P. Henson might work for the Santana character, a stylish, funny English teacher. I’m thinking Keri Russell as the intrepid education reporter — the hair is right.
We agreed that if the union president shows up, only PFT president Jerry Jordan could portray himself.
“It was hilarious,” Santana said. “I loved it. I think a lot of teachers will identify with it, and a lot of it resonated with me.”
Told that Santana loved the show, Brunson was pleased.
“That’s the review that matters most!” Brunson said in a statement.
A special sneak peek premiere of “Abbott Elementary” will air on Tuesday, Dec. 7, at 9:30 p.m. on ABC. The show will return to its regular time slot starting Jan. 4.