Cheryl Hines and Denise Cramsey talk School Pride

The executive producers of this new NBC reality show discuss their school-makeover series

NBC's new reality series School Pride, which revitalizes deteriorating schools all across the country, will premiere on Friday, October 15 at 8 PM ET. Two of the show's executive producers, actress Cheryl Hines and Denise Cramsey, recently held a conference call to discuss their new show, and here's what they had to say:

I wanted to ask you about the selection of Tom Stroup and what you think he brings to the show?

Cheryl Hines: Well we love Tom for lots of reasons. He is a leader. We were looking for a strong leader and he's also very good with kids and with people. And on top of that, he knows how to build and fix things. So there a lot of reasons why Tom was a great choice for us.

He's pretty photogenic too it seems like.

Cheryl Hines: Yes and he's easy on the eyes. I forgot that part. That's just a given. And have you seen the guns on him? Come on.

Are you happy with how the production has gone so far?

Cheryl Hines: I'm so happy with how the production has gone. It's turned out to be even better than I imagined. We've had a chance to go across the country and go into seven different schools and make a huge difference in those schools. And it's been just an amazing experience.

Now where did the original idea for School Pride come from?

Cheryl Hines: Well it came from a very grassroots effort. Back in LA, I was feeling the need to reach out and help a school just because I'm a mom and I see my daughter go to school. I was just feeling the urge. So I picked up the phone and I called a school in Compton, Carver Elementary where I was volunteering in a reading program. And I talked to Dr. Jackie Jacqueline Sanderlin, the principal there. And I asked her if she needed any help at her school. And she said yes. So we joined forces. And we started renovating her school with the help of the community and the help of the school district. And it was so successful, we started another school. And at that time, one of my friends said, this should be a show so you guys can show the country what you're doing. I met Denise Cramsey who's an expert at what she does. And we teamed up together and NBC loved the idea. And the rest is history.

Denise, aside from the school aspect, how is the show different from something like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition?

Denise Cramsey: Well I think the biggest difference is that this is a makeover done by the people not to the people. Meaning that the teachers, and students, and parents actually do the work. They don't get sent away while we do it for them. So that's one difference which I think is different than any other makeover shows on television. And the other differences are the impact of these renovations. It's not just one family or even one neighborhood. It's literally sometimes 600 families and lasting for generations to come. So we feel really good about how many people are able to be helped by what we can do at one school. And then the last thing, there's a social mission attached to this. In that, the state of education right now is not good. There's lots of publicity about that. So we're trying to encourage people to take one little step to do the one thing that they can control which is make the environment good for the kids. And that's our little way of contributing to what we hope will become a national effort to fix up our schools.

How did you get Microsoft and People Magazine to sponsor specific nooks in the school? How did those meetings go down? And how did you approach these corporate benefactors to partner with you on this reality series?

Denise Cramsey: Sure, sure. What we did is it sounds really simplistic to say we picked up the phone and we asked them if they wanted to help. But that is in fact what we did. We sat down and did some research about what companies already had education initiatives and already put money towards those things. And we came up with our list. And then we just started calling people and asking them to partner with us. We thought the cleanest sort of way, the most organic way for a sponsor to get involved is for them to take over a room that fit in with what their brand was. So hence, People gets a reading room. And Microsoft gets a computer lab or a science and technology center. And what we found when we picked up the phone was people were so glad that we called. And, you know, wanted to do even more than what we were asking them to do. It is an easy sell as they say. Because so many corporations already have money earmarked for education. And because it is a way to get across both a pro social message for the company as well as something that fits so nicely to their brands.

Cheryl, I wanted to ask you to continue the story you were telling a little while ago that it started when you were interested in helping a Compton school. Now as it happens because there's a Compton School first here in the series, I assume that was a different Compton School that you helped at first, before the series? Is that right?

Cheryl Hines: Yes. I actually worked on two different schools in Compton before we started working on Enterprise Middle School which turned out to be our first episode of School Pride.

Were the other two elementary or middle or high schools? The two you'd worked on?

Cheryl Hines: The other two were elementary. Yes, the other two were elementary schools. And then we felt like Compton was such a great place to start School Pride because we knew the community well. We knew that they were excited to help us. Compton is great community and the people there are hard workers. They're great parents. They're people that really are interested in the children and wanted to help and do something. So the school board as well, was very helpful and supportive. So we just felt like it was the perfect place to start.

Speaking of hard-working communities, and it's a question for either you or Denise, the Detroit one stands out from the others in some ways. First of all, most of them are in California and that's in Detroit. And it's kind of like a magnet school. I can think of only one other schools in there. So kind of tell us how you picked the Detroit school and what the impressions were of that one as you got to work with it?

Denise Cramsey: The way that we picked all of our schools is the kids themselves submit tapes to us. That they work with their teachers or parents and they actually create a video tour of the school and they interview their teachers. And then what spoke to us about this school in Detroit is that they are a small high school, very much a neighborhood-oriented high school. And they have a 97% graduation rate and 97% of those kids go onto secondary education. Which those numbers are striking in any community in the country but certainly in Detroit where the average high school graduation rate is 54%. So these kids were excelling and that's the combination that we needed. We needed a school that needed physical help and a community that was passionate enough to help us execute our plans. So the idea of charter school versus magnet school versus public school hasn't really come into it for us. It's more about what schools need our help and what communities are willing to do the work to get things done. And Detroit was on both counts.

I was really struck when they found out that all those supplies were sitting in a warehouse in Compton and nobody was using them. Could either of you kind of describe to me how you felt when you found that out? That there were so many things sitting unused in a warehouse?

Denise Cramsey: I think what I felt most of all and what all of us felt was sad. That the system of American education not just in Compton but everywhere is not really working. I mean those supplies were there because they were afraid to use them up. Because they didn't know when they were going to get another batch of supplies. So it's tricky. There is something broken in the distribution system of American education with supplies, with money, with communication. We had another school where, you know, money for carpet came in before money for a new roof. So they put in the carpet and then it rained and the carpet got ruined. We need to fix the distribution system. So when we saw that warehouse I think I mostly just felt sad that we can't find a way to get teachers what they need.

I'm just curious to know since you really are kind of going into a community and basically knocking down a public building, can you just sort of walk us through the whole process of doing that? What are the permissions you need to get? What are the hoops you have to jump through, the legalities and working with the local government? And how long does that process actually take to get all that red tape cleared up before you can actually begin you project?

Denise Cramsey: Well one thing to say just to correct, we aren't actually knocking down and rebuilding. We are working within the existing structure and renovating areas of it. So that makes your question a little bit easier to undertake. It is mostly aesthetic work that we're doing and then some basic repairs. But having said that, it does require the school board to be behind us 100%. It requires the mayor's office and the city code office to be behind us 100%. And luckily what we found is when we went out there and said, we want to do this and we're going to mobilize; people moved a lot quicker than they were used to moving. And I think we certainly in the first meeting and people would say, when do you want to do this? And I would say two weeks from now and they would start laughing. But somehow everybody rolled up their sleeves and we got it done in two weeks. So it can happen. And I think, you know, it helps to have the power of the TV show asking you to hurry up and get it done. But it was really just cooperation across the board that helped us get there.

Have you ever tried to go into a community or to a particular school where they said basically no. You know, the kids sent you the video and you went to the school but the school board says sorry, we don't want to be on TV or we don't want to cooperate with this project of yours?

Denise Cramsey: We did have that happen to us. Where a school district did not want to do it. And really what it is is it's fear. It's fear that what are we going to do? It's fear that we're not going to be able to do it properly and take care of the kids. So what we were able to do was to pull the students and parents together and say, call in. Tell them how much you want this. And the public pressure built so that we actually got the school district to change its mind. So in the end, everywhere we went allowed us to be there. There were some doubters at first. But once the community made its voice heard, we were able to get in and do what we wanted to do. So I think that's a lesson for communities everywhere. If you organize and use your voice, use your power you can make things happen.

I want to know what it is that repairing these schools and, you know, reviving the environment is ultimately doing for the kids and even the teachers?

Cheryl Hines: Well it sends a very loud message that we care about them. And when kids and teachers are showing up at school every day and ceiling tiles are falling on their heads and they can't use a water fountain it feels like nobody cares about them. And that's how they feel and understandably so. When we go in and listen to what they want and work with them. And make big changes, they feel like someone cares. And I think it gives them a sense of pride and it gives them a sense of School Pride.

Denise Cramsey: If I could just add to that. Of the seven schools we did, we've done follow-ups with them. Every single one reports that attendance is up. And that the classes are actively engaged more in learning because of the space. And all of the principals say that's because the kids feel good now about coming to their school.

That's fantastic. People who, you know, obviously there's thousands of schools in the country. And you guys worked with seven. What can people do in their own communities to try and, you know, do these revitalization efforts for their own schools?

Cheryl Hines: Well I think they need to engage the principal of the school. They need to just like Denise was talking about, come up with a very organized plan. What they want to accomplish and how they're going to accomplish it. I know that there are lots of schools across the country that have websites which is a great way to communicate with the students, and the teachers, and the community members. So I think that's a good jumping off point.

Denise Cramsey: The other thing is to go to their alumni directory, to go to their own students and find out , oh, this one has a construction business. This one owns a paint store. This one, you know, works with computers. And to call those people and say is there anyway you can support your school? Because really in the end and understanding that we're a TV show and that brings different things with it. But in the end, what we did is pick up the phone and call people and ask for help. And they came through. And I think the school spirit is alive and well in this country. And schools just have to not be afraid to pick up the phone and ask for help.

I want to go back to one thing that Denise said about the power of television. Can you expand on that? What is it about television that gets people going?

Denise Cramsey: Well I think it's two-fold. One is the excitement that it brings with it. You know, people want to be on TV. They want to know what's going on. They want to be a part of something. So there's definitely that. And then for businesses, I mean we can offer some exposure on the show for them. So there's a business aspect to it a marketing aspect.

I noticed in the premiere that the contractor was donating his services right?

Denise Cramsey: Yes it's reduced to him at first.

Is that process repeated as you go into other communities and ask someone to do that too?

Denise Cramsey: Yes, everyone, all the contractors donated their time and their efforts, and their, you know, their contacts and their subcontractors. We certainly could not have...Well let me put it...It would have been much more difficult to do it without those guys.

And have you heard from them what it did for them afterward? I mean, you know, people and Microsoft are one thing but just these companies in the community?

Denise Cramsey: Absolutely. The biggest thing that they've noticed so far is the morale within their company. Is their employees who live in that community and have written them emails or come up to them in the office and said thanks for doing that. So that's the biggest thing is in the end it wound up being a team building exercise for them which I don't think they expected but they've certainly called and said thanks for making that happen.

Denise, this uses some of the things that have worked so well for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Some of the techniques as far as getting people around and getting all excited and giving them T-shirts, getting them all working. So kind of tell us in general, these have been I think a real surprise how successful they've been in the ratings some of the feel good reality shows. What it is overall about this type of show that works so well with viewers?

Denise Cramsey: The main thing is that people can see themselves in the shows. They can relate to the stories and they can see, oh I could do that or my community could do that or that's what we're like. The second thing and I've traveled the country with both shows, School Pride and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The truth is Americans just want to help. And they believe that they are community of people who can get things done when they band together. That's the true American Dream. If we band together we can get it done. And that's what these shows prove week after week.

School Pride premieres on Friday, October 15 at 8 PM ET on NBC.