Celebrities inspire students to learn on Sundance Channel’s ‘Dream School’

Swizz Beats is one of the celebrities featured in the series.
Swizz Beatz is one of the celebrities featured in the series.

Students are starting a new school year, and one of educators’ biggest challenges is keeping them there – and hopefully funneling them toward college.

One new documentary, the Sundance Channel’s “Dream School,” highlights what it calls a dropout crisis. The six-part series follows students as they learn from an array of celebrities, from artist Swizz Beatz to financial guru Suze Orman and director Oliver Stone. The 15 Los Angeles students, all ages 17 to 18 – a pivotal age when students decide to drop out or stay in school — were either expelled or had dropped out, and each professor tries to spark their interest.

We spoke with Steven Keller, a California superintendent involved with the series, about how the students reacted to their unusual education atmosphere.

What are some of the challenges of keeping kids in school?

First of all, family engagement. Moms, dads, uncles, aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers need to hunker down with their family members and engage their family members. As a family and as a country, we need to take ownership of each and every kid to really push them and motivate them to get to school each day and check in on them when they get home from school, make sure they have some accountability when the kids get home, whether a potential dropout or not.

The second piece, of course, is funding. There needs to be more funding specifically for kids that are earmarked as potential dropouts. We as educators need to look at restructuring and reforming how we serve this population.

And then the last piece is, we as educators need to assess what works and what doesn’t work and adjust and make changes and reflect on our practice. So there are certainly three layers to it that play into this.

What are some of the symptoms of someone who might be at risk of dropping out?

A lot of people look at traditional data. On the other hand, we look at other factors. We look into attendance. We actually look at social emotional assessment with kids, to find out how engaged they are at school. Do the students feel a sense of purpose at school? Do the students feel he or she can express his or her opinion in class and to a school educator? Those indicators tell you a lot.

What are some of the reasons students give for dropping out?

“My parents, my brother, my mom and dad, don’t go to college, and they’re doing fine.” Usually the excuse a child will give, a student will give, is not reaping the monetary benefits, that they know plenty of people who didn’t go to college and didn’t necessarily graduate who are making plenty of money. … [But] we know plenty of people who make a lot of money who are miserable, absolutely miserable in their lives.

Did anything during making this series surprise you?

I think the celebrity teachers genuinely wanted to connect with the kids. All of them really do. They were nervous, even scared. They would constantly ask for feedback. I’m not saying they all performed brilliantly, I’m just saying they all took their craft seriously. … No one showed up thinking they were going to wing it.

What different types of styles did students respond to?

Suze Orman came in with business to make. She was ready to go, she was not going to play any games. You’ll have to see. The students clearly respond to that style.

What do you think could most help students who can’t participate in something like ‘Dream School’?

I think the most powerful message for potential dropouts is find that person in your life, whether it’s a friend who’s achieving academically, family member, … seek out an adult, it doesn’t mean it has to be a millionaire or somebody who has a great job, but somebody you admire, somebody you respect, somebody who does want to better him or herself, somebody who is basically hungry, who wants to move ahead and not just to have a new car or a new house but who really wants to change the world and make it a better place. Everybody knows somebody.


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