Growing Up on the Award-Winning 'Degrassi' Series

Growing Up on the Award-Winning ‘Degrassi’ Series- A Degrassi Press Release December 13th,1989.

December 13, 1989

Growing Up on the
Award-Winning ‘Degrassi’ Series

By Mark Walsh

The students of “Degrassi Junior
High,” the award-winning public- television series for
adolescents, will be back in school beginning next month,
confronting new issues and unfamiliar surroundings.

The half-hour drama will drop the
“junior” from its title as its characters graduate to
“Degrassi High,” which makes its season debut on the
Public Broadcasting Service with a special one-hour episode on
Jan. 13 at 7:30 P.M. Eastern time. Dates and times may vary on
local PBS stations.

In its first two seasons, with 26 episodes the
first year and 16 last year, “Degrassi Junior High”
earned a reputation for addressing tough youth issues head on.
Its sensitive and realistic portrayal of the lives of an ensemble
cast of young teenagers has earned respect from quarters well
beyond its target audience of 10- to 15-year-olds.

Education groups endorse it, teachers tape it
for use in the classroom, and critics hail it as pioneering
television in the mold of “Hill Street Blues.”

In last season’s finale, the Degrassi Junior
High building mysteriously burned down. This year, the Degrassi
characters advance to a much larger high school in their nameless
North American city. The show, filmed in Toronto, is a
Canadian-U.S. co-production, shown on the Canadian Broadcasting
Company and on PBS here, where Boston’s WGBH is the presenting
station.

At the junior-high level, the series has
tackled such subjects as alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, birth
control, homosexuality, anorexia nervosa, peer pressure, stress,
racial stereotyping, gossip, and death.

As the show moves on to high school, it gains
the opportunity to address new themes, but also faces the
challenge of trying to maintain its appeal while covering
dramatic terrain already explored by commercial television.

Though TV series set in high schools are not
new, said Kate Taylor of WGBH, the executive producer,
“Degrassi Junior High” was the first major show on
American television to deal with the years between elementary
school and high school.

“I think it is the first show to be honest
in reflecting the relationships and textures of life for kids in
these adolescent years,” she added.

Each episode is presented from the youth
perspective. Adults are never shown in a scene without the
students, and cameras are poised at the students’ eye level.

“Adults might provide information, but
they don’t suggest choices,” said Linda Schuyler, the
Canadian executive producer and co-creator of the show. “I
think it is very important we leave kids feeling empowered to
make their own choices.”

Abortion Dilemma

The premiere episode of the new season upholds
“Degrassi’s” track record of plunging into
controversial issues. After a summer romance, Erica, a 10th
grader, learns she is pregnant and must decide whether to have an
abortion. In previous episodes, another character, Spike, faced
the same dilemma and chose to keep her baby. The difficulties the
teenage mother faces have been frequently addressed on the show.

“We know that teenage sexuality and
pregnancy is a very important issue,” Ms. Taylor said.
“We felt like we needed to tackle it again. The whole issue
of abortion seemed like the logical path to follow.”

The producers have attempted to present a
balanced view. Erica’s twin sister, Heather, is opposed to
abortion and tries to dissuade her sister from having one. A
classroom debate is used to examine many of the arguments on both
sides.

Erica faces angry anti-abortion protestors at
the clinic where she goes for counseling. Her sister, meanwhile,
seeks the advice of Spike without revealing who the pregnant girl
is.

“Having an abortion was wrong for
me,” Spike tells Heather. “Maybe your ‘friend’ feels it
is right for her. It’s great to have high ideals and stuff, but
when you’re in that situation, right and wrong really get
complicated.”

To Ms. Schuyler, the episode’s aim is not to
show whether a pregnant teenager should have her baby or have an
abortion. “We are saying, ‘These are the things you have to
consider before you make your choice,'” she said.

“We felt we really owed it to our audience
to describe what goes on with abortion,” added Ms. Schuyler,
a former junior-high-school teacher. “We wanted kids to make
sure they understood exactly what they were getting into.”

In the end, Erica chooses to have the abortion,
and her sister decides to be at her side.

Ms. Taylor expects that “switchboards are
going to light up” at public-TV stations across the country
when the episode is aired.

“The show does present both the pro-life
and pro-choice view,” she said. “But it is an emotional
subject. It may be that we will have a lot of response to
it.”

Growing Cast, Creative Risk

Other storylines unfolding in this season’s 15
new episodes include a hate campaign directed against Erica and
her eventual return to dating, the divorce of the 10th grader
Michelle’s parents and her father’s objections to her black
boyfriend, and the discovery by a character named L.D. that she
has leukemia.

But not all the action is so grave. The show
injects humor into its plots in the form of 16th birthdays,
driving lessons, a student rock band’s continuing quest for
success, and the ever-present teenage crushes and romantic
entanglements.

The decision to move on to a high-school
setting was made for two reasons, according to the producers. Not
only did that locale present the opportunity to address fresh
issues, but the cast, made up of amateur actors plucked from
Toronto schools, was outgrowing its junior-high look.

According to Ms. Schuyler, it was either move
into high school or “stay at the junior-high level and allow
the kids to grow out of the system.”

But she and others involved with the show are
conscious of the element of creative risk that moving up
involves. “Degrassi High” will join a long list of
comedic and dramatic efforts on network TV depicting life in high
school, including the groundbreaking “Room 222”;
“Fame,” the series inspired by the movie about a
performing-arts high school; the popular “Head of the
Class,” about a group of honors students; and the
short-lived “Bronx Zoo” and “TV 101.”

“Despite the fact that there have been
other high-school shows, I feel we have approached this show with
the point of view that we are not going to lecture to kids,”
Ms. Taylor said. “We are not going to wrap up things neatly.
We really strive to show the complexity and shades of gray. I
think that distinguishes it from a lot of the other shows kids
have watched over the years.”

From Canada to U.S. Classrooms

The Degrassi concept had its beginnings in an
earlier series for children called “Kids of Degrassi
Street,” which ran for five years on Canadian television.
That show focused on the 6- to 10-year-olds in a diverse Toronto
neighborhood. In 1985, “Degrassi Street’s” creators,
Ms. Schuyler and Kit Hood, sought financing to further develop
the show in a junior-high setting.

They teamed up with Ms. Taylor of WGBH, who
secured funding from PBS and the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting. Before any episodes aired on PBS, Ms. Taylor
contacted major education associations for previews.

“I wanted to get some sense of the
reaction we would get in the education community,” she said.
“What we heard is that this was exactly what was
needed.”

The show is now supported in this country to
the tune of $3 million by individual PBS stations, the cpb, and
the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

In addition to its weekly airings on PBS, the
show has become popular in U.S. classrooms. WGBH promotes its use
in schools with discussion and activity guides for teachers, a
newspaper supplement for students, and other efforts.

“We are trying to get to the health or
sex-education curriculum coordinator,” said Simone Bloom,
the show’s outreach coordinator.

At 10 middle schools in Omaha, 13 episodes from
the first year of “Degrassi Junior High” are used in
the 7th- and 8th-grade human-growth and development curriculum.

“We use it as a way to get kids to
talk,” said Richard M. Werkheiser, director of secondary
education for the Omaha Public Schools. “Theel10lkids
identify with the characters.”

The producers have also heard from many English
teachers who use taped episodes, and recently they conducted a
pilot project to explore the show’s potential applications in the
social-studies curriculum.

Jerome and Dorothy Singer, directors of the
Family Television Research Center at Yale University, have
studied middle-school students in Connecticut who watch the
program. And though they are still analyzing their data, Mr.
Singer said that “the overall effect was extremely
positive.”

“The episodes are thought out more
carefully from a psychological standpoint, than other [similar]
shows,” he said, “and they certainly seem to evoke a
positive response from the kids.”

According to Ms. Taylor, “Degrassi Junior
High” has been the most successful program ever in
attracting teenage viewers to public television. Of the estimated
weekly U.S. audience of 3.5 million viewers, 44 percent are under
the age of 18.

She has heard rumors, she said, that one of the
commercial broadcast networks may be developing a teenage drama
series along the lines of ”Degrassi.”

“If the networks want to steal this idea,
then my view is that public TV should do something
different,” she observed. “But if good TV for kids were
offered by the networks, public TV could close down.”

The “Degrassi” producers suggest,
however, that after this new season, there may only be one more
season of original episodes.

To Ms. Taylor, that schedule “may be the
right course.”

“The kids are getting older and we have
dealt with a lot of issues,” she said. “The show is
story-driven and we can go back to issues. But at a certain
point, a show does run its course. I think maybe one more year
will be enough.”

1989 Editorial Projects in Education

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