Northeast High School, which has been selected as the setting of actor Tony Danza's forthcoming A&E reality show, "Teach," is no stranger to the national stage.
The 52-year-old school, at Cottman and Summerdale avenues (it moved from its original location at 8th and Lehigh in 1957), has garnered national attention twice before.
The first time, it basked in the light of educational glory and the JFK-inspired can-do optimism of the early 1960s. Several years later, it became the poster child for what many believed to be the soul-deadening nature of the country's public-education system.
Northeast's first brush with nationwide fame came in 1962, when it created Project SPARC (for Space Research Capsule; the "C" now stands for Center). Developed in the wake of the creation of the U.S. space program, SPARC was a vehicle for academically gifted students to address questions and problems related to space travel. In 1964, the first of SPARC's three-pupil simulated space flights occurred, receiving national media attention. According to the Philadelphia School District's Web site, SPARC was recognized by the federal government as the first program of its kind.
SPARC was a model of progressive education. But if Northeast High had ever been held as a paragon of such teaching philosophies, its reign lasted only until 1968, when the film documentary "High School" was released.
Made by Frederick Wiseman, the leading (and most controversial) nonfiction filmmaker of the era (his "Titicut Follies" helped trigger reform in the treatment of the mentally ill), the 75-minute "High School" was a searing (some would say agenda-laden) indictment of how public education was less interested in teaching students and preparing them for future success than in turning them into meek conformists afraid to challenge society's status quo.
Using his standard style devoid of narration, Wiseman turned his camera on students made bored and apathetic by colorless teachers and bullying counselors and disciplinarians.
In one scene, an English teacher drones through a reading of "Casey At the Bat" while kids doodle, stare blankly and even cop some Zs. Another vignette portrays a meeting between a burly dean with a Marine-style brush-cut and a student who has, in his mind, been unfairly given detention and walks out of the classroom.
The important thing, insists the dean, is that the boy accept his punishment, thereby showing school officials that he can take orders. By doing so, the dean continues, the youngster will prove he can "be a man."
The movie so enraged city and education officials that, in defiance of all known First Amendment rights, an injunction prevented it from being publicly screened in Philadelphia. In the early 1980s, it was shown at Temple University, but Wiseman, who was scheduled to appear for a Q&A session, never made it.