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Networks Train Spotlight on Education During Week of Special Programming

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By Mark Walsh and Millicent Lawton

The major television networks will jump on the school-improvement bandwagon next week by broadcasting an unprecedented number of hours of programming emphasizing educational themes.

The effort is called "Education 1st! Week," and participants include ABC, CBS, NBC, the Fox network, the Public Broadcasting Service, and several cable channels, including Home Box Office, Nickelodeon, and MTV. It runs from Monday, April 15, to Sunday, April 21.

"We look at it as a springboard to greater public awareness," Carole Isenberg, an organizer of the event, said of the week of programming.

The event has grown out of work begun in 1988 by Ms. Isenberg, a writer and producer for television and films, and Lynda Guber, a movie producer.

That year, the women, both former New York City public-school teachers who moved to Southern California some 20 years ago, founded Education 1st!, a nonprofit group that works to give noteworthy education efforts a high profile in Hollywood as well as to motivate the entertainment industry to incorporate more positive messages about education into television and film.

Ms. Isenberg and Ms. Guber, who is married to Peter Guber, the co-chairman of Columbia Pictures, have gathered a prominent group of Hollywood insiders to participate in Education 1st! The organi4zation counts Mr. Guber and Brandon Tartikoff, the chairman of the NBC Entertainment Group, among its trustees.

Their efforts received a big boost last August when Mr. Tartikoff, one of the most influential executives in network television, first announced "Education 1st! Week." At a breakfast meeting in Beverly Hills, he and executives from ABC, CBS, and the Fox network agreed to the weeklong April programming effort focusing on education.

Other broadcasters, including PBS and several cable companies, soon signed up as well.

"At PBS, we put education first every week of the year," said Bruce L. Christensen, president of the public-television system. "But this industrywide effort to broadcast positive messages about education is welcome and needed."

Praise, Dissent

NBC appears to be devoting the most time to the effort, with education themes planned for the storylines of shows as diverse as the situation comedies "The Cosby Show" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" and the sports show "nba Inside Stuff."

The network also plans to broadcast a made-for-television movie, "She Stood Alone," about the life of Prudence Crandall, a 19th-century Connecticut schoolteacher who opened the first academy for young black women.

Popular programs on other networks will also touch on education, including "Roseanne" and "Life Goes On" on ABC; "Designing Women" and "Evening Shade" on CBS; and "In Living Color" and "Beverly Hills 90210" on Fox.

Several cable networks plan to air movies with educational themes or develop other special programs or public-service announcements, organizers said.

Some observers of the entertainment industry were dubious about the networks' efforts.

"I think they are all earnest and they all care," said Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television and a frequent critic of network television, "but what I find disturbing is the enormous noise that a week of what television should be doing all the time makes."

"It's more of [an attempt] at impressing Congress and the [Federal Communications Commission]," she said. "It really has nothing to do with improving education."

But Ann Lynch, president of the National pta, hailed the broadcasters' plans. "This is a great first step," she said of the event.

"I really applaud the media itself saying 'We need to do something about this,"' she said.

"I would hope this is the start of a longer awareness," the pta president added.

Ms. Isenberg said that in addition to Education 1st!'s other projects, the week of educational programming may become an annual event.

"The week is important," she said. "The follow-up is more important."

Education 1st!, which is aiming to help improve literacy as well as the graduation rate of high-school students by the end of the century, is in the process of creating a booklet that will detail ways in which Americans can become involved in education by such activities as reading to their children at home and visiting their children's schools.

Ms. Isenberg said she and her fellow organizers want to "really raise the consciousness" of the American public and make people aware that just because education is in crisis now, "it doesn't have to be this way."

Working With Writers

In addition, Education 1st! is working on an ongoing basis with the writers of television series to improve the image of education portrayed on TV. As part of this effort, the group has created a "primer" for writers on how to portray schools, teachers, and bright students in a more positive light.

In effect, Ms. Isenberg said, her group is asking writers, "'Why do you have to have bright kids presented as nerds? Why can't you show teachers as really cool?"'

Ms. Isenberg said she was optimistic about the group's chances for effecting substantive change in an industry often accused of playing to the public's lowest common denominator. For one thing, she said, the group has involved top-level industry executives--the "people who can make it happen."

"I think it is just a matter of tenacity," she said. "This is not a flash in the pan. This is not the flavor-of-the-month."

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