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  • Vanessa Bartlett

Abbott Elementary does more than make fun: it might even make change

ABC’s new hit family comedy Abbott Elementary has received rave reviews from the outset. The lighthearted mockumentary-style show centers the serious work of Black teachers maneuvering through a public school system that does little to help them.

Quinta Brunson appears as second-grade teacher Janine Teagues in “Abbott Elementary,” a mockumentary series she created and developed. (Gilles Mingasson/ABC)

A few months ago, I was looking for something new to watch on Hulu, and stumbled into my newest obsession: Abbott Elementary. I’ve been hooked ever since the pilot episode dropped.

The show has been compared to other successful mockumentary-style shows - classics like The Office or Parks and Rec have both set the groundwork for what that genre even looks like. But the comparison falls flat for me.

Even though Abbott is only on its fifth episode as I write this, the show has set itself apart from the rest of the genre. While The Office, Arrested Development, and Modern Family speak to the anxieties of life in middle class white America, Abbott tells the story of people (adults and children alike) who are left out of mainstream narratives.

Abbott tells a different kind of love story. There’s no Jim and Pam. Instead, teachers like Janine Teagues (Quinta Brunson) and Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) pour their love into taking care of students.

Episodes generally follow new teacher Ms. Teagues’ overzealous attempts to fix her school. Her optimism often grates on her older counterpart Mrs. Howard’s sense of pride and, more depressingly, her learned helplessness in the face of mismanagement by school administrators.

Between the hijinks, the show shines a spotlight on real issues that many teachers in underfunded school districts face.

We all know how it works. Redlining and other subtle manipulations of the housing market have ultimately resulted in neighborhoods which are de-facto segregated, usually along racial lines.

The problematic legacy of redlining has resulted in racially divided school systems, which do no favors for Black students depending on what zip code they call home.

According to a 2020 report by the National School Board Association on the condition of education for Black students in the U.S., 45% of Black students attend high poverty schools, compared to just 8% of white students.

This unfortunate reality makes closing the achievement gap difficult - there are still stark differences in education outcomes for Black students from low-income backgrounds and their more affluent white peers. National assessment tests taken between 1992 and 2019 show little change in this gap, according to statistics from the NAEP National Report Card.

So far, Abbott has only made elliptical passes at the issue of race, usually in the form of zippy one-liners. But I don’t see a way for the show to avoid asking the big questions about how race factors into the treatment of teachers and students at schools like Abbott.

Abbott is set in the Philadelphia public school district, one of many urban school districts which are faced with serious issues like those addressed in the show. High teacher turnover, insufficient resources, and a lack of administration involvement are among the topics that have been explored in Abbott so far.

In the words of Mrs. Howard, “Teachers at a school like Abbott, we have to be able to do it all. We are admin, we are social workers, we are therapists, we are second parents. Hell, sometimes we’re even first.”

This show sets itself apart from other frivolous, cheesy, familiar sitcoms. It has a clear message, and it hammers it home with every episode. In real life, teachers like the ones at Abbott are expected to go above and beyond for their students, and rarely get the recognition they deserve (or even decent compensation).

This show hits all the notes it aims for, and then some. Besides being a show with a message, it’s hilarious. If you’re not watching Abbott Elementary yet, you should start. Like, right now.

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