NEW RIDGEMONT HIGH
August 20, 2019, 9PM EST.
[One year earlier]
Special Edition of 20/20, with Barbara Walters.
Barbara Walters [In studio]: New Ridgemont High, the exciting new experiment in public schooling and brainchild of USC sociologist, William Friedman, is all that anyone has been talking about since its first public announcement ten days ago. An admittedly radical response to what is being called a national “youth crisis,” New Ridgemont High is for many the last chance to address the disturbing social, psychological and legal problems faced by American young people today. “We are at a watershed moment in our society,” Dr. Friedman said in a recent interview, “Our public schools are about to become indistinguishable from the juvenile offender institutions of decades past, unless someone does something quickly,” and New Ridgemont High is his way of doing just that. Meticulously designed to replicate a mid-1980’s Valley high school, New Ridgemont High is an effort to recapture a conception of schooling and of the student population, from a time well before the current troubles and yet recent enough to represent an attainable goal.
But the reforms being proposed extend far beyond the school’s campus. Developed from decades of work on what Friedman refers to as “Social Immersion theory,” the model depends upon substantial social support, which means not just the school, but the entire community will embark upon a trip back to the 1980’s. Local businesses, radio and TV stations, and most importantly, private homes, will all collaborate in this unprecedented, community-wide turning back of the clock.
Two days ago, Dr. Friedman held the first of what will be a series of town-hall style meetings with the parents of incoming New Ridgemont High students. He – and they – were kind enough to open their first meeting to me and to 20/20’s cameras, and here is what they had to say.
Cut to the Ridgemont Theater, two days prior, and Friedman meeting with NRH parents.
Friedman: [From the stage] I want to welcome you all to what will be the first of several meetings regarding the upcoming school year. And thank you for permitting Barbara Walters and the 20/20 team to listen in and report on what we’re doing here. The problems that New Ridgemont High is designed to address are national problems, and it’s appropriate, therefore – and I think a very hopeful sign – that there is this level of interest nationwide in what we’re doing in Ridgemont.
Let me say a few words about what I’d like us to accomplish, here, tonight. While many of you already know one another, some do not, and we also have a number of parents of students who will be coming from outside the district, so I want to make sure that everyone is part of the family. I’ll start, then, by asking some of you to introduce yourselves and talk a little about why you’ve chosen to send your kids to New Ridgemont High, after which we’ll open it up into more general discussion.
Friedman walks to the front row and hands a microphone to a man, who is sitting with his wife.
Steven Gold [standing up and facing the audience]: I’m Steven Gold, and this is my wife, Rachel. Our seventeen-year-old daughter, Chloe, will be starting at New Ridgemont High, this year, as a Junior.
I’m an attorney, working mostly with the film industry, and Rachel is a homemaker. We’ve lived in Beverly Hills, since before Chloe was born. Until now, Chloe has been attending Beverly Hills High, and as odd as it may sound, I am beyond thrilled to be able to take her the hell out of there.
Friedman: Could you elaborate?
Steven Gold: I’m not going to insult anyone by pretending that Beverly Hills has the kinds of problems that some of the parents in this room are dealing with, but it certainly has its share of them, as well as some unique problems of its own. Chloe isn’t moving because the school is crime-ridden or because it’s insufficiently funded; with the tax base it draws from, obviously that’s not the case. Nor is the school inadequate academically, though it’s fallen prey to the same worrying academic trends that we’re seeing across the state and nationwide.
Friedman: So, what is it? Why is Chloe leaving?
Steven Gold: The culture at Beverly Hills High is toxic. Not just because the school is filled with smug, privileged rich kids, who’ve succeeded in revolutionizing the art of meanness – which of course, it is – but because it embodies the worst of today’s social trends. The kids interact with each other almost entirely through social media, with all the deforming effects that come with it, and the school, rather than fighting it, has embraced it and even integrated these goddamned platforms into the school environment.
And the obsession with scheduling and supervision – my God – every minute of these kids’ days is filled with a planned, supervised activity, under the most stifling, bureaucratic rules you can possibly imagine…
Man in the back [loudly]: Oh, we can imagine it alright!
Steven Gold: Chloe says the students barely know how to talk to each other anymore, and they lack any ability to settle their own disputes and conflicts. They cut each other to pieces on social media when they’re out of school and run to the administration, when they’re in it. Chloe is a beautiful, smart, talented, friendly girl, and she has virtually no friends. It’s a goddamned disaster is what it is.
Rachel Gold: [Wrinkling her nose] Can we cool it with the “goddamns”?
Steven Gold: Well, that’s my reason, anyway. And Chloe’s too. It was her idea to switch schools, not ours, and I don’t blame her one bit. She deserves to have a satisfying and enriching adolescence, just like we did.
Woman in the middle row: Hear! Hear!
Friedman: Thank you, Mr. Gold. Would you mind handing the microphone back to someone else? How about the woman two rows behind you? She’s got her hand up.
Betty Reilly: [Smiles somewhat nervously and gives a small wave] Hi! I’m Betty Reilly. My husband, Michael, owns Reilly’s Auto Repair, here in town. Our son, Kevin, will be starting New Ridgemont High this Fall, as a Senior. I’m sorry Michael couldn’t be here tonight, but he had to stay late at the shop. The preparations for this 80’s rewind have been taking a lot of his time.
Friedman: We greatly appreciate your family’s participation in the project. So, what’s Kevin’s story?
Betty Reilly: Kevin goes to Central, and he’s absolutely miserable. I know it’s his last year and everything, but he’s climbing the walls. Getting into trouble with the police. Fighting with his dad, which he never used to do. We had to do something.
Friedman: Why does he hate Central so much?
Betty Reilly: [Visibly upset] The thing is, I understand why he hates it. And I think he’s right. But what were we supposed to do? All the schools are like that now.
Friedman: Like what?
Betty Reilly: Everybody has to go to college. If you don’t go to college, you’re a failure. The courses you have to take – most of them are preparation for college. But … [looks like she’s struggling]
Friedman: We’re all listening, Mrs. Reilly. Take your time.
Betty Reilly: That’s just not Kevin. He grew up in Michael’s garage. He wants to work on engines, brakes, electrical systems. But there are no shop classes at Central or at any other public school in LA. He’s a clever, smart boy, Dr. Friedman, but not book smart. And those classes they’re making him take – he’s getting C’s and D’s, and every day he becomes angrier; bitter. [Wipes her eyes] And that’s why he’s switching to New Ridgemont High. Because you have a real shop program.
Friedman: A four-year, specially designed, integrated academic and vocational program. Kevin can graduate with a diploma and a Journeyman’s certification in one of half a dozen trades we offer, including auto shop. After high school he can go straight to work, and if he wants, later, he can go back to school for Master-level certification.
Betty Reilly: [Her eyes shining] That’s what the man who came to the house said! That nice man – I can’t remember his name – he looks like Art Garfunkel.
Friedman: [Clears his throat] That would be Sal Levy, our physics teacher, who also doubles as a mechanical engineer and auto shop teacher. He does all of our outreach to the families interested in vocational ed.
Betty Reilly: Right. Well, the minute we heard that, we signed Kevin up. [Quietly] It’s the first time we’ve all agreed on something in a long time.
Friedman: Kevin is most welcome, Mrs. Reilly. Thank you.
Betty Reilly nods and hands the mic to a couple behind her. Sits down.
Don and Nancy Bennett [standing up]: Hi everyone.
Nancy Bennett [squeezes Don’s arm and whispers] You talk, honey.
Don Bennett: Me? Oh, ok. Well, I’m Don Bennett and this …
Nancy Bennett: [Leans over to the mic] I’m Nancy Bennett.
Don Bennett: Yes, and, um, our son, Mitch, goes to Clark.
Friedman: The highest ranked private math and science academy in the state.
Don Bennett: Yeah, well when you put it that way…, the thing is, we don’t like it very much.
Nancy Bennett: [Leaning over again] And by “we,” he means both of us and Mitch too.
Don Bennett: [Turns to her and whispers] Look, do you want to share the mic?
Nancy Bennett: [Pats him] No, no, sweetie, you’re doing great.
Friedman: [A hint of a smile on his face] So, what’s wrong with Clark?
Don Bennett: Uh, well, my wife and me, we’re scientists.
Friedman: I see.
Don Bennett: I teach cosmology at UCLA, and Nancy, she’s a marine biologist.
Don Bennett: Also at UCLA. With a joint appointment at the University of Miami.
Friedman: I see.
Don Bennett: So, it made sense to send Mitch to Clark. He loves science, and everyone says that Clark is the best in science.
Friedman: So, what’s the problem?
Don Bennett: Well, ah …
Nancy Bennett [takes the mic from him] The problem? It’s a bunch of crap is what it is.
Friedman: Is it?
Nancy Bennett: [Steelily] It is.
Friedman: How so?
Nancy Bennett: They’re not developing a love for science in the students. They’re drilling them like Marines to make them maximally competitive in college admissions and scholarships.
Don Bennett: [Leans towards the mic] What my wife is trying to say is …
Nancy Bennett: And they’re training them to compete with each other. Grade point average. Class Rank. SAT scores. Valedictorian, salutatorian, whatever-the-[bleep]-a-torian …
Don Bennett: [Moving closer to Nancy] Sorry! She’s very…
Nancy Bennett: Very is exactly what I am. These kids are getting home at 3:00 and falling asleep into their books at 11:00. There have been two suicides in the past year. It’s a disgrace.
Friedman: [Gravely] New Ridgemont High will be nothing like that. The farthest thing from it.
Nancy Bennett: [Her head held up] We know it. That’s why Mitch will be attending, come Fall. [Sits down and hands the mic back to her husband]
Don Bennett: [Humbly] And we are very grateful for the opportunity. [Sits down and passes the mic to a woman at the end of the row.]
Friedman: As are we, Mr. and Mrs. Bennett. As are we.
Wanda Freelander: I’m Wanda Freelander, and my son Myron will be attending New Ridgemont High, as a Junior.
Friedman: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about what informed your decision, Ms. Freelander?
Wanda Freelander: We live in Compton.
Friedman: I know. I recruited Myron personally. Visited your home.
Wanda Freelander: Myron is a member of the Honor’s Society – as are several of his friends, who also will be attending New Ridgemont High – but that doesn’t change the fact that Compton High is a dangerous place. The gangs actively recruit and maintain a presence there. And it’s poor – very poor. Teachers are shelling out their own money to pay for basic supplies.
Friedman: [Grimly] I know.
Wanda Freelander: [Looks pointedly around the room] So, understand me when I say that my reasons – and Myron’s reasons – for attending New Ridgemont High are really basic. He is a smart, good young man who wants to be able to go to school and not wind up in jail or dead.
Friedman: I think everyone can understand that. And it’s part of the reason why I wanted to make sure that kids from Compton and Crenshaw would be a part of New Ridgemont High.
Wanda Freelander: [Quietly, looking down] I just wish there were more.
Friedman: There will be. This is just the beginning.
Wanda Freelander: Well, that’s all I have to say. [Sits down]
Friedman: Would anyone else like to do introductions?
The room remains silent.
Friedman: So, how about questions? Thoughts? Discussion? I’ll have a packet for you next time, with all the details regarding school policies, rules, how the school day will go, etc.
Man in the back row: [Gestures for the mic, which is passed back to him.] Thomas Harry. My daughter, Anna, goes to Stevens and will be starting at New Ridgemont High as a sophomore. Are you going to empanel a parental School Board?
Friedman: Mr. Harry, welcome. Yes, there will be a School Board. At this point, I plan on taking volunteers. If there’s a flood, we’ll have to arrange some sort of selection procedure.
Thomas Harry: Doesn’t sound like you think of it as much of a priority.
Friedman: My thoughts on it are somewhat complicated, so please hear me out.
Thomas Harry: Of course.
Friedman: One of the major differences between the lives of young people today and those of previous generations is the degree of adult involvement. There’s way more of it today than even would be imaginable in previous generations.
Thomas Harry: Okay…
Friedman: Now, one might think this is a good thing. After all, the mantra on the part of school officials today is that parents and teachers are “partners in education.” And beyond that, there’s so much fear in the air – both about how young people will behave and about their safety – that pretty much everyone has bought into this idea of wall-to-wall scheduled activities and ubiquitous adult supervision.
Thomas Harry: Can’t disagree with any of that.
Friedman: In the past, adults just didn’t want that much to do with children, and vice versa. Kids were largely left to their own devices, even at very young ages. You could be eight years old and easily spend a good portion of every afternoon and evening out and about the town alone or with your friends, with no adult in sight.
Thomas Harry: [Laughs] That was me alright.
Friedman: In my view, that sort of freedom is absolutely essential to healthy human development. It’s in that exclusively youthful space that kids learn virtually every important social skill: How far can you push the rules? How do you resolve conflicts and disputes? How do you manage your social circle? How do you prioritize values? How do you balance recreation with your various responsibilities? All those sorts of things. But if you’re always scheduled and supervised by an adult authority figure, you never learn them. You heard what Mr. Gold said.
Thomas Harry: I did.
Friedman: The results have been disastrous. Which is why I want minimal parental interference in what goes on at New Ridgemont High. It’s a good part of the reason for returning to an earlier model of schooling, in the first place – the open campus; the free periods; the absence of hall monitors – they all serve the goal of allowing for substantial, free teen spaces.
Thomas Harry: I’ll have to think about that. In the meantime, though, what will the Board do?
Friedman: My plans are for it to serve an entirely advisory role, as well as being a clearinghouse for questions and concerns. A lot of the governing functions that Boards typically serve will be taken on by student government, to which I intend to give a substantial amount of authority.
Thomas Harry: That sounds like it’ll certainly increase the sense of investment the kids have in the school.
Friedman: That’s exactly my line of thinking. Anyone else?
A couple in the back corner of the room raise their hands, and a mic is passed back to them.
Mary and Frank Goldstein: [Standing] We’re the Goldsteins.
Friedman: Welcome, Goldsteins!
Mary Goldstein: Our son, Tim, will be starting New Ridgemont High as a Sophomore. He’s been attending Central up until now.
Friedman: We’re thrilled to have him. What led to your decision?
Mary Goldstein: For us, it’s all about the arts. Your representative … [turns to her husband] what was his name, honey?
Frank Goldstein: Jameson.
Friedman: John Jameson, English teacher and theater director.
Mary Goldstein: Right, that’s him. When he came to visit, he told us that New Ridgemont High will offer the best arts and theater programs in southern California.
Friedman: And that’s a major concern for your family?
Mary Goldstein: It is. Central has completely gutted arts education, and what theater it has is a joke. All the money is poured into sports. Stevens is better, but you can’t get in there, as a transfer – the waiting list is years long.
Friedman: As the only arts-oriented public school in LA County, I’m not surprised.
Mary Goldstein: Music and theater are Tim’s loves, and he can’t do them at Central, at least not in any sort of satisfying way. And he has no interest whatsoever in sports.
Friedman: Our programs are carefully balanced so that none receive a lion’s-share of our funds and none are starved for them.
Frank Goldstein: We love it. It’s funny, though.
Frank Goldstein: Well, it might seem nitpicky, but there’s nothing particularly 80’s about that. I was in school in the 80’s and sports were much better funded than the arts. I mean it was the Reagan era, after all. My wife and I talked about this – she’s a bit older than me – and what you’re describing seems more 70’s than 80’s. 60’s even.
Friedman: No, it’s a good question – nothing nitpicky about it at all – and it gives me an opportunity to clarify something.
The Goldsteins sit down.
Friedman: Your perception is correct. New Ridgemont High incorporates pedagogical ideas and practices that derive from the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s. And you’re also right that the 1980’s is when some of the bad trends that are metastasizing today had their start.
The retro aspects of New Ridgemont High are not a nostalgic exercise. They’re an effort to return to things that worked and never should have been abandoned. But there are three major reasons why the focus has been – and will continue to be – on the 1980’s and why we are going to the lengths that we are to replicate that particular environment.
First, the more recent the rewind, the more effectively it can be achieved and the least disruptive it will be, when students return to mainstream education or the workforce, after high school. For example, if we’d modeled the school on the 1960’s or 1970’s, there’d be virtually no computer education, and that strikes me as being essential. And there are many other things like that.
Second, in the realm of marketing, promotion, and politics, there have to be clear identifiers and markers. To a great degree, we’ve brought this kind of oversimplified misrepresentation of what we’re doing upon ourselves, but one has to be able to describe the project in a clear, pithy way, when one is dealing with politicians and the press.
Third and most importantly, there has to be a strong, visible, tangible identity, in order for social immersion to work. If I thought pedagogical reforms alone were enough, we wouldn’t be doing anything this elaborate. An enlightened charter or magnet school would be sufficient. But decades of research has convinced me that the damage done to our young people over what is now almost two generations runs so deep that it has become endemic, and for that sort of problem, only an approach with a heavily behavioral component will work. Social immersion makes maximal use of this kind of behavioral technique, but it requires a very well-defined and fully realized social environment in order to be effective.
[Looks down at his watch and gestures to the audience] We’ve been going for a little over an hour, and now wouldn’t be a bad place to stop. Are there any other questions? Thoughts?
The room remains silent.
Friedman: Okay, then. Thank you so much for coming, and I’ll see you next week – same time, same place. [Waves to the audience and leaves the stage].
Cut back to ABC Studios and Barbara Walters, who has been joined by Hugh Downs.
Barbara Walters: A remarkable project and a fascinating discussion. Your thoughts, Hugh?
Hugh Downs: It’s definitely an ambitious plan, Barbara. Some might even say it’s a bit too ambitious, though the situation in California and nationwide would seem to be urgent enough to justify it. I was struck by the quote from Friedman that you gave in your Introduction – that our schools are on the brink of essentially becoming juvenile offender facilities. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.
Barbara Walters: The data certainly bears him out. Campuses are all closed. The police presence in schools is way up. Many municipalities are imposing youth curfews. The situation seems to be spiraling out of control.
Hugh Downs: If you recall that recent study that came out of Harvard … the projections are that by 2025, juveniles will make up thirty percent of the prison population and almost entirely for what not long ago would have been considered insignificant, petty offenses. Some of the stronger voices of opposition are even calling it an outright “war on youth.”
Barbara Walters: It’s certainly become the issue of our times. Frustrating. And terrifying. Thank you, Hugh.
Hugh Downs: It’s my pleasure.
Barbara Walters: For continuing coverage of the current youth crisis and New Ridgemont High, stay tuned to ABC News. I’m Barbara Walters, and this is 20/20.