As a teacher, Tony Danza's school days are behind him

Tony Danza host­ing trib­ute to Philly’s Fallen, fea­tur­ing The Phil­adelphia Or­ches­tra. This spe­cial show will hon­or the men and wo­men in blue who lost their lives in the line of duty. It was to be held at the Mann Cen­ter for the per­form­ing arts Sunday 9-20-09.Ad­mis­sion is free, al­though a dona­tion to the Fraternal Or­der of Po­lice Sur­viv­ors’ Fund is sug­ges­ted. Harry T. Leech


It wasn’t sup­posed to be, but the setup for the news con­fer­ence was rather hu­mor­ous. There stood a quar­tet of of­fi­cials and a state law­maker at a mi­cro­phone to be­moan cuts in state aid for Philly’s pub­lic schools, and even Tony Danza had something to say.

You need some power­house at these press con­fer­ences, someone who has been in the trenches, to con­vey how edu­ca­tion is be­ing hurt. So who bet­ter than a former sit­com star who taught at North­east High School a couple years ago as fod­der for a real­ity TV show?

Tony Danza’s your man. And there he was on Feb. 23, shoulder to shoulder with state Sen. Mike Stack and three power­brokers in loc­al edu­ca­tion, all of them po­si­tioned stra­tegic­ally in front of school dis­trict headquar­ters, and Tony Danza’s telling it like it is.

He’s dis­heartened by in­ad­equate state fund­ing.

It only hurts the kids.

“At North­east High,” he said, sum­mon­ing the set­ting for his real­ity series more than a year ago on cable’s A&E net­work, “we lost shop teach­ers, art teach­ers. That sends a mes­sage to the kids that they really don’t mat­ter.”

Thank you, Mr. Danza, for those in­sights. Please have a seat.

I heard a ra­dio snip­pet of the press con­fer­ence and saw pho­tos on loc­al In­ter­net news sites. The Times didn’t cov­er it. Not that we’re be­ing sanc­ti­mo­ni­ous, it’s just that the whole thing smelled more like a photo op than a le­git news story, be­cause in these grave times when the School Dis­trict of Phil­adelphia is jug­gling the need to slash a $39 mil­lion de­fi­cit by June with the sub­tleties of sav­ing aca­dem­ic pro­grams, what makes Tony Danza the voice of pain and suf­fer­ing in Philly’s classrooms?

Some­how a long-ago col­lege de­gree in his­tory edu­ca­tion and sev­en or eight epis­odes of a real­ity show called Teach have be­come his cer­ti­fic­ate. But Danza wasn’t a worthy center­piece of that press con­fer­ence, not when there are hun­dreds of teach­ers who have been in those Philly classrooms day after day, year after year, stand­ing up to the obstacles and hard­ships while im­buing kids with the joy of learn­ing — teach­ers who could have con­veyed those rig­ors quite elo­quently at a mi­cro­phone, and yet they’re home watch­ing Tony Danza on the 6 o’clock news tell every­one how tough their jobs are.

The fact is that al­most two years have passed since Danza’s real­ity ex­per­i­ence in that North­east High classroom. His real­ity series came and his real­ity series went. It was a re­cip­roc­al part­ner­ship — the school dis­trict got $3,500 an epis­ode and a $25,000 con­tri­bu­tion to North­east High; A&E got a classroom and put Danza’s im­age on an in­ter­act­ive Teach web site, a glitzy bit of tech­no­logy with a shop­ping link that peddled the of­fi­cial Teach cof­fee mug: Show you are a true Tony fan with this ex­clus­ive jumbo mug!

In the spir­it of full dis­clos­ure, I must con­fess that our re­la­tion­ship with the A&E pub­lic-re­la­tions gal went south at some point around that time. She kept push­ing schmaltzy stor­ies about Danza’s won­der­ful concept for the show, about how he viewed teach­ing 25 sopho­mores in an Eng­lish class at North­east High as the biggest chal­lenge of his life. We kept push­ing a val­id story of why a sit­com act­or wanted to make a sound­stage of a classroom for an en­tire school year, es­pe­cially a classroom in a be­lea­guered urb­an dis­trict where every second of in­struc­tion is vi­tal.

That’s not what the A&E pub­lic-re­la­tions gal had in mind. For­get PR. Stone­walling sud­denly be­came her spe­cialty. A&E was in full con­trol. Even North­east High prin­cip­al Linda Car­roll be­came elu­sive, will­ing to praise Danza’s teach­ing tech­nique but not so will­ing to dis­cuss wheth­er show-biz and edu­ca­tion were a good combo in the classroom. You’d have thought we were ask­ing if Mah­moud Ah­mad­ine­jad was en­rich­ing urani­um.

Now this isn’t to di­min­ish Danza’s sit­com chops. The dude was on fire in the ’80s, with the TV sit­coms Taxi and Who’s the Boss?, and he does seem a nice enough guy. Even if Teach even­tu­ally wheezed to its con­clu­sion, de­flated some­what by an audi­ence that gradu­ally played hooky over the en­su­ing weeks, the real­ity series earned some de­cent press re­views.

I ad­mit­tedly peeked at it a couple times. I tuned in for the very first time when Danza was on a cry­ing jag, and I figured, my God, he must’ve been roughed up or maybe even locked in the jan­it­ori­al closet and prin­cip­al Car­roll had to let him out, but I was re­lieved to learn that Tony was just hav­ing a rook­ie’s crisis of con­fid­ence.

That doesn’t mean Danza has paid his dues as a teach­er. It simply means good me­lo­drama for a TV show. It is nice that he keeps in touch with the school, as he did by host­ing a fund-rais­ing tal­ent show at North­east High on the day of that press con­fer­ence, but Tony Danza has be­come like the moth­er-in-law who ar­rives for Christ­mas and is still around on Ground­hog Day.

He has no street cred to be part of a press con­fer­ence pulled to­geth­er to rap Gov. Tom Corbett’s school-fund­ing policies. He has no re­sume to weigh in on tough times for Philly’s pub­lic schools.

That’s the province of a teach­er, not an act­or. ••


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