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Star-Studded TV Special Entertains While Focusing on Improving U.S. High Schools

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The "XQ Super School Live" hourlong education special simulcast on four broadcast networks Friday evening had a high-wattage stable of actors, DJs, rappers, other musical artists, and comics, all to appeal to a young studio audience and to engage TV viewers of all ages.

So it was a bit curious that the show opened with a staid montage of four network news personalities—David Muir of ABC News, Gayle King of CBS News, Chris Wallace of Fox News, and Al Roker, NBC News' weatherman and more—explaining how the four networks were putting aside competition to carry the show about improving high school education. 

Such images might have been enough to send the casual Friday night viewer reaching for the remote. But soon enough, the show brightened with a film of students singing "Don't You Forget About Me," the memorable closing tune by Scottish band Simple Minds for the movie "The Breakfast Club."

The TV special was the work of the Entertainment Industry Foundation and the XQ Super School Project, which was launched with a similar four-network TV show two years ago to encourage a rethinking of the American high school.

Chance the Rapper, who has personally donated $1 million and helped raise more for the Chicago Public Schools and has announced plans to organize an awards show to honor teachers, was the first celebrity to appear on the stage at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica, Calif.

"Everyone here tonight recognizes that our world around us has changed dramatically, but we look at our schools and we just see the same—the same cutbacks, the same struggles, the same kids missing out on the chance to get the education that they deserve," he said. "We're all here because we believe it doesn't have to be the same. Communities throughout America can come together and create the type of education that honors and respects the potential of every child."

Viola Davis, the acclaimed actress who was a co-executive producer of the show, said: "This is the hour. This is the time. This is the moment for us to come together and start a big, powerful conversation about education and high schools in America. We at XQ know that the days of hoping someone else will come along and do it for us are over. We have to do this together. But we also know that there are no quick fixes."

There was a short film to explain what cars, telephones, and high schools looked like in 1900, 1950, and today. Cars and phones have come a long way, while high schools have not, the film asserted. "Why are we still granting diplomas based on the time a student spends sitting in a seat?" the narrator asked.

Davis said the TV special was not a telethon but "a call to action. And the first step is really simple. Join the conversation."  She made the first of many exhortations to viewers to send a text message to receive more information about the project.

Around this point, two people were shown and identified in the audience. Russlynn Ali, the former U.S. Department of Education civil rights chief under President Barack Obama and the executive director of the XQ Super School Project, and Laurene Powell Jobs, the board chair of the project and the head of the non-profit Emerson Collective. Ali discussed with me last week her hopes for the special to raise awareness of the need to improve high schools.

Singer and actor Justin Timberlake said: "We're living in complicated times and we disagree about a lot of things. But one thing we can all agree on is the importance of an education, am I right? We owe it to our kids to give them the best shot at life."

He introduced the first of several short films about high schools that have won initial grants from the XQ project to remake their schools—the Furr Institute for Innovative Thinking in Houston.

Other highlighted schools included Da Vinci RISE High School in Los Angeles, which serves homeless student and students in foster care; Washington Leadership Academy in the nation's capital; and Iowa BIG, a Cedar Rapids school that serves students from multiple school districts.

The actress Maria Bello sought to explain the focus on improving high schools.

"High school is the bridge from who we were as kids to who we become as adults," she said. "It's a crucial pivot point when a young person's brain is still developing—I have a 16-year-old, I know—when they're forging an identity. It's a magical, transitional, confusing, illuminating time, and its impact echoes throughout a person's life."

Actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creative force behind the stage megahit "Hamilton," appeared in a nicely filmed segment returning to his alma mater, Hunter College High School in New York City. He met Gina Nocera McCort, his theater advisor at the school, where he appeared productions that included "The Pirates of Penzance," "Bye Bye Birdie," and "Godspell."

"The things I learned about  leadership and collaboration with you as my advisor on all of the shows we worked on—there were a lot of shows—have served me well throughout my life and my career," Miranda told her. "Thanks for teaching me."

There were other tributes to teachers.

A taped segment showed teachers at Santa Monica High School in California arriving for the first day of school down a Hollywood-style red carpet. TV hosts such as Melissa Rivers of E! channel's "Fashion Police" and Kevin Frazier of the syndicated "Entertainment Tonight" interviewed the teachers. They asked things like "What are you going to teach today?" rather than "Who are you wearing?"

The show cut back to Viola Davis again, who thanked her teachers and introduced her sister Delores, who has been teaching English and drama at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island for 25 years. "She's been an inspiration to me inside and outside of the classroom," the actor Davis said. 

This year's special was a little less edgy than the 2015 show, which was called "Think It Up."

Still, as he did in the 2015 how, James Corden of "The Late Late Show" on CBS did another version of his Carpool Karaoke bit, this time with the actor Tom Hanks at the wheel of a school bus, and the seats soon filling up with young people singing Kim Wilde's "Kids in America."

The fast-paced hour included other segments, such as a look at the YouTube channel called ASAP Science, and the announcement of a XQ Super School kit for school boards.

Davis and Hanks rounded out the show, with Hanks saying, "In America, we know that one small step can become a walk on the moon. We know that one simple act of sitting on bus can inspire an entire movement. We know that 272 words on a hill at Gettysburg will help heal a nation. We take problems, we raise our hands to solve them. That's what we do. That's who we are. So tonight let's take one small step to reshape our education system in the United States of America. Because when we're good, we're great."

Then, there was a blaring finale of the Beatles' "Come Together," featuring drummer Ringo Starr (on film) as well as U2 (on tape), and other young and old drummers, guitarists, and singers, with Jennifer Hudson and many others converging on the stage of the enormous Barker Hangar space.

When you can get four TV networks, multiple Oscar winners, the top creative mind on Broadway, and a Beatle on your side, you must be doing something worthwhile.

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