After a year in a city public school classroom, Tony Danza says his heart is still very much in Philadelphia. But when he visited Northeast High this month, Danza detected a problem.
"The morale was kind of low because of the ongoing budget cuts," said Danza, who taught sophomore English at Northeast two years ago for a reality show. "They're talking about cutting school nurses. Can you imagine that?"
Actually, the district already has laid off nurses, virtually eliminated summer school, and ordered some employees to take pay cuts and furloughs, among dozens of other painful cuts. And there's more to come, with a $38.8 million budget gap left to bridge by June.
What's a song-and-dance man to do? Put on a show, naturally.
Next Thursday, Danza will be back at Northeast for a Students vs. Teachers talent show, judged by the audience, with prizes for the winners. Proceeds from the show - augmented by a donor who pledged to match any funds raised - will go directly to the school, the city's largest.
Danza's appearance is no drive-by, said Linda Carroll, principal of the 3,100-student school.
His show, Teach, wrapped up in April 2010, but Danza stayed to teach his class after the cameras left, finishing out the school year. And, he visits often and keeps up with school news via e-mail. Around Thanksgiving, he messaged Carroll: "How was the pep rally?"
Carroll has heard a lot of cynicism about Danza, whose book about his year at Northeast is due out later this year. During his time at the school, he taught one class, and he had a certified teacher to assist him.
He was no joke, the principal said. "He's a teacher," Carroll said. "Some people are born to be teachers, and he's one of them."
Back in California this week, Danza is working on revisions to the book. He's gearing up to star in a musical version of the movie Honeymoon in Vegas, set to debut on Broadway next year.
But his head is very much still in education, and with his students, now seniors. He's written multiple college recommendations. (And, Carroll points out, given out scholarships to Northeast students and donated to the school's uniform fund.)
In an interview this week, Danza reflected on how tough it was to teach - no revelation to anyone who's spent a day in a classroom, but something Danza said he understands much better now.
"It tests you," he said. "It tests you in so many ways."
Teach was plagued by low ratings, but Danza said he doesn't dwell on the show's lack of success.
Its time slot - Friday at 10 p.m. - wasn't right, Danza said. But most of all, it didn't fit with the type of shows the public seems to crave now - Bad Girls Club, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
He was shocked by how uninvolved many parents are in their children's education. He thought it was "amazing that the unmotivated student is no longer the exception," and believes that popular culture and media messages are wreaking havoc on education.
"I'm in the classroom saying, 'Good behavior and hard work will pay off,' and they're saying, 'That's not true. Look at Jersey Shore,'" Danza said.
Danza is in favor of revamping teacher evaluations and weeding out bad teachers.
"Help them, train them, support them, but ultimately you've got to get them out," he said. He's a union supporter, though, and "thinks the unions have a real role to play" in education reform.
News of the way budget cuts are affecting the district really worries him.
"We have to show kids we care, and how to show that is by having a nice school, after-school programs, a nurse," said Danza. "Otherwise, they get the message that we don't care. And sometimes with kids, that's all they need to turn off."
He's even paid attention to news of former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, whose decision to file for unemployment turned him off. (The state denied her claim.)
After Ackerman left the district, she said her Philadelphia experience convinced her to support vouchers and charter schools, because public education was broken.
Danza doesn't agree.
"Unfortunately, Arlene Ackerman is a perfect example of what's wrong," he said. "Here's a woman dictating to a district of kids that she's never around. The people who are teaching, they're in the trenches."
But mostly, he's excited to get back to the school. "We have to raise the morale of the school, and get the community involved," he said.
That sounds good to Carroll. (As long as Danza doesn't try to make her sing.)
"We have so many reasons to be cynical today," she said, "but it's nice to know that people care about public education."
Northeast High's Students vs. Teachers talent show, featuring Tony Danza, is planned for 6 p.m. next Thursday in the school auditorium, Cottman and Algon Avenues. Tickets are $2 for students, $5 for adults. All proceeds benefit the school. For more information, call the school at 215-728-5018.EndText