Growing Up on the Award-Winning 'Degrassi' Series

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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. "The kids 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."

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