President of Sundance Channel Sarah Barnett, Curtis
"50 Cent" Jackson, Swizz Beatz and David Arquette
Sundance Channel’s unscripted series “Dream School,” premiering Oct 7 at 10pm ET, enlists a group of leaders and celebrities to teach 15 high school dropouts who have left the school system for various reasons—be it pregnancy, bullying or troubled home lives. There are appearances from hip-hop artist Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, A-List director Oliver Stone and financial guru Suze Orman, to name a few. But what we find in this 6-part series is that many of the mentors learn as much from the experience as the students themselves.
Particularly moving are the encounters between the students and actor David Arquette, who serves as the kids’ homeroom and drama teacher. At a panel celebrating the series in New York City on Tuesday, he told reporters that as a child he often got into trouble and ultimately owes much to the guidance of great teachers. “I can relate to these kids,” he said. Indeed, in more ways than one. In a tearful confession during episode 2, one transgender student reveals to the class for the first time that he was born a girl and consequently teased relentlessly in school. This and other honest—and surprisingly self-aware—revelations from the kids inspire more waterworks—from Arquette himself as well, whose transgender sister experienced similar challenges growing up. It was one of the most memorable experiences in his career, Arquette told the room.
When it comes to casting mentors for the students, executive producer Andrew Jameson said what matters is that the teacher is the right fit for the school and topic and possesses the right skill set. But “what it boiled down to was passion.” While knowledge is important, you also need to be inspiring. 50 Cent complemented Arquette, saying he lights up the room, “because you’ve laughed at him in the past.” (At which, the room laughed.) And as for 50, he saw the opportunity with Sundance as “a great platform to use your celebrity” to do something good.
So could a dream school such as this be replicated? And what can we learn from it? Paulette LoMonaco, executive director of Good Shepherd Services, a company that provides services for overage and under-educated youth, added gravity to the issue. Citing stats from the Department of Education from 2005, she said the organization found that 138,000 young people in NY were likely not to graduate that year. She sees the show as an “an amazing opportunity” to demonstrate “the difference a caring relationship can provide.” In the future, LoMonaco would like to see the students interact with former students who have struggled and graduated, mentors she referred to as “credible witnesses.”
In any case, it’s refreshing to see an unscripted show focus on a topic that’s relevant and warrants real discussion. “In the marketplace there’s not much of a push for intelligent conversation” in the world of unscripted television, Jameson said. He hopes that the show helped to “kindle a flame of knowledge” in these students that will set them on their way.