My Top 10 TV Shows Set in Schools

And it’s the start of the school year once again. Some towns and cities have already started, maybe even already finishing their second week of school, while others won’t be starting until after Labor Day. I went back to school this past Monday, with our students coming on Wednesday. Nice short week for the kids—only Wednesday and Thursday—before a four-day Labor Day Weekend. Meanwhile, here I am getting a Top 10 list written.

What better way to celebrate going back to school than counting down my favorite shows set in high schools? Now before you complain that I forgot such wonderful shows as My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks, let me explain the parameters. For this list, a major character—not a guest star or recurring character—has to be a member of the faculty of the school. So even though those two shows had extensive scenes inside schools, they were more about the teen characters’ lives than the school itself.

Make sense? Well if you don’t think this list makes the grade, at least I should get an A for effort. Now let’s go!

 

#10 – Boston Public

Through the late 90s and into the 2000s, television writer/producer David E. Kelley created a handful of shows set in my glorious hometown of Boston. Though a majority of them centered around lawyers (Ally McBeal, The Practice, and its spin-off Boston Legal), they shared a universe with this show about teachers at fictional Winslow High School. I did my student teaching in the Boston public school system, and the interior and diversity of the teaching staff felt authentic to me, even if some of the storylines weren’t. I vividly remember the pilot episode when principal Steven Harper (an awesome and imposing Chi McBride) assigned Harry Senate (Nicky Katt) to teach in “The Dungeon”—a class full of disruptive students—and he fired a gun in class to teach them respect. Yeah, he’d probably get fired at least for antics like that, but this is fiction, trying to teach lessons. However, the show eventually became more soap-operatic as the professional and personal lives of the teachers (and sometimes the students) got entangled.

 

#9 – Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide

My daughters insisted that I include this Nickelodeon show on the list, and after watching a few episodes, I can’t disagree with them. The show focuses on Ned Bigby (Devon Werkheiser) compiling a guide to navigate middle school, particularly issues like grades, popularity, dating, sports, etc. He and his two best friends Jennifer “Moze” Mosely (Lindsey Shaw) and Simon “Cookie” Nelson-Cook (Daniel Curtis Lee) were always scheming—sometimes scheming each other. While Ned was the everykid goofy boy, Moze was level-headed and athletic, and Cookie was a technological genius, often seen with a mini computer screen attached to his eyeglasses. The plots, camerawork, and editing are fast-paced, but there’s genuine heart in the show, making it impossible not to like.

 

#8 – Room 222

Here’s the oldest show on this list, premiering way back in 1969 and running until 1974. I wasn’t even three years old when the final episode aired, so I obviously didn’t see (or remember) this show from its original run. But I know I saw a few episodes growing up—maybe in syndication on some of the UHF stations that broadcast in the late 70s and early 80s—enough to remember the show and warrant its inclusion on this list. To determine the quality and/or success of a show like this one—one that is indeed set in a school and focuses on an inspirational teacher such as Pete Dixon (Lloyd Haynes)—is to see if the lessons still hold up. Sure, there were topical ones at the time such as the Vietnam War and Watergate, but others are still timely today such as race relations and anti-gay harassment. Some of that is groundbreaking for the era.

 

#7 – Degrassi franchise

While America gave us Saved by the Bell (later on this list) and Beverly Hills, 90210 (not on the list, even though “Donna Martin graduates!”), Canada gave the Degrassi series—five of them so far. This show is far more dramatic than Bell and more realistic than 90210 in the way that it handled issues facing the youth of today. According to the Wikipedia page for Degrassi High, the third series in the franchise, the show dealt with “controversial issues ranging from AIDS, abortion, abuse, alcoholism, cheating, sex, death and suicide, dating, depression, bullying, gay rights, homophobia, racism, the environment, drugs, and eating disorders.” I’ve seen very few episodes, but what I have seen has been solid television, and I commend them for tackling everything they do. I also know some of their more controversial episodes have been censored in other countries—including America—and that’s not particularly cool.

 

#6 – The Facts of Life

“You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have The Facts of Life.” One of the most singable theme songs of the 80s is from the show set at Eastland private school for girls. The show was a spin-off of sorts from Diff’rent Strokes after Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Rae) left the Drummonds to become a dormitory housemother in the school Kimberly once attended. There were rarely scenes in classrooms, but it makes the list because Mrs. G. was technically a staff member of the school who imparted her own wisdom and guidance upon the girls. Originally, there were about ten girls in the house—including a pre-Sixteen Candles Molly Ringwald—but after the first season, they cut that down to the four everyone remembers: Blair (Lisa Whelchel), Jo (Nancy McKeon), Natalie (Mindy Cohn), and Tootie (Kim Fields). The four would learn their lessons, sing along to “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”, and ultimately open a business—with a pre-ER George Clooney as a handyman!

 

#5 – Welcome Back, Kotter

Back in the 70s, before John Travolta was a major movie star, his breakout role was in this show as one of the “Sweathogs” at James Buchanan High School taught by the titular Mr. Kotter (comedian Gabe Kaplan). Travolta shined as slacker Vinnie Barbarino, along with the other hogs: Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo) with his wheezing laugh, Freddy Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) on the basketball team, and Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes) with his hilarious fake excuse notes signed by “Epstein’s mother.” There were some great catch-phrases on the show, most notably “Up your nose with a rubber hose,” and Mr. Kotter would often tell bad jokes to his class and his wife. The show only lasted four seasons, unable to last after Travolta leaving the show for movie stardom and Kaplan being less featured in episodes due to contract issues, but at least there were three seasons of laughter.

 

#4 – The Magic School Bus

Not only is this the only animated show on this list, but it’s the only one that’s strictly educational. PBS really scored high grades with this adaptation of the book series by Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen. Each episode of the show follows Miss Frizzle (voiced by the incredible Lily Tomlin) and her class as they learn all sorts of different science facts with the help of the titular school bus. Wanna learn about the solar system? The bus turns into a rocket and flies into space! Wanna learn about dinosaurs? The bus becomes a time machine and they travel back to the Jurassic and other prehistoric periods. Wanna learn about digestion? The bus shrinks itself and its occupants and gets swallowed by one of the class kids. The stories taught great science, but they added humor and a little bit of age-appropriate peril. Adults watching with their children might laugh at the many celebrity guest voices. But what’s more exciting is that the children who grew up watching the mid-90s show may be able to share the upcoming The Magic School Bus Rides Again with their children.

 

#3 – Saved by the Bell

Told you it was coming! It wouldn’t be right for this show not to be high on the list. The Bayside gang is iconic. The show started on the Disney Channel as Good Morning, Miss Bliss, centering on the titular teacher played by Hayley Mills. Some of her students (Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s preppie Zack Morris, Dustin Diamond’s nerdy Screech Powers, and Lark Voorhies’s fashionista Lisa Turtle) would transition into the revised Saturday-morning NBC show and be combined with Mario Lopez’s althetic A.C. Slater, Elizabeth Berkley’s grade-obsessed Jessie Spano, and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen’s girl-next-door Kelly Capowski, and magic would-be made. They tried to reinvent this wheel for college years, and a few new classes, but none of them worked as well as this ensemble of six with principal Mr. Belding (Dennis Haskins). Most of the time, the kids were goofy, but they learned lessons along the way—even when the acting wasn’t perfect (everyone remembers when Jessie was pill popping). But even more memorable: the old-school cell phones.

 

#2 – Head of the Class

Maybe I related to the students of the IHP (Individualized Honors Program), causing this show to rank so highly on this list. It only showed them in their History class, taught by their teacher Charlie Moore (Howard Hesseman), and I would’ve liked to see how they handled math and science classes. But Mr. Moore insisted they think beyond just rote memorization of concepts; he truly tried to challenge them, despite some interference and ambivalence from the principal. The cast of students, though occasionally stereotypical, was one of the most diverse in television history—even more impressive for the late-80s. The school took place in a city, and it felt like that. Nothing against Billy Connolly, but when he took over for Hesseman, the show wasn’t the same, so even though the show was short-lived, it’s near the head of the class in my memory.

 

And getting the top grade…

#1 – BOY MEETS WORLD

Ben Savage as Cory Matthews, Danielle Fishel as Topanga Lawrence, and Rider Strong as Shawn Hunter were the trio of best friends that many people grew up with. Actually, the three of them grew up in front of America, as this show followed them from middle school into college and adult life. And Mr. Feeny (William Daniels) followed them too. He was the neighbor of the Matthews family, but he was also Cory and friends’ teacher. Was he also the principal at one point? There are some severe continuity issues in the show, as some characters vanished, and I was never quite sure what grade they were in at certain times, but I don’t care. It tackled issues when it needed to, tried to teach lessons about friendship and life, and it was often funny. It may have gotten alternatingly silly and heavy-handed in later seasons, but when they were in high school, it was an ABC TGIF staple. Disney Channel has started showing Girl Meets World, centering on Cory and Topanga’s daughter while Cory is the school teacher, but it’s not the same.

 

Agree? Disagree? Comments, compliments, complaints? If you don’t respond in time, you’ll lose credit.

Images on this page are linked from the shows’ respective Wikipedia pages: Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php

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