NBC News goes to 'Class'

Will track group of kids until 2020

NEW YORK -- NBC News this week is launching an ambitious project called "Class of 2020" that will follow a group of Los Angeles-area kindergartners all the way through high school graduation 13 years from now.

The project, the brainchild of Burbank-based NBC News producer Curtis Vogel, is simple in its idea: Pick a group of 20 pupils and an extraordinary teacher and show how a school, and a school system, works. Like the documentary "Seven Up!" and its follow-ups during the past four decades, it will chronicle the life and times of the pupils as they move through the system. The series will mainly appear on "Today" but also will have a dedicated Web site.

"What if we tried to capture those teaching moments that I've always heard about and chronicle the education of kids from beginning to graduation," asked Vogel, whose "Today" executive producer Jim Bell enthusiastically supported the idea.

Vogel had to clear several hurdles, including getting the permission of the Los Angeles Unified School District, approval by the principal, teacher and eventually the parents of the pupils. LAUSD approved it and settled upon an elementary school in North Hollywood, an acclaimed institution with a diverse student population. Vogel got the approval of the principal, Joanie Freckmann, and all but three of the parents of the incoming 65 kindergartners signed on.

"We're hoping that it's going to be an avenue for people to look inside a school to see some of the struggles we have and the successes," Freckmann said Wednesday. "We hope that people will look at this and see that there are some very, very good things happening in public education."

The 20 pupils selected are assigned to Michelle Tepper, an 11-year veteran who Freckmann calls "a very natural teacher." Vogel or a cameraman use hand-held cameras, shot from a corner of the room, for a full day once a week so they are not obtrusive and don't get in the way of teaching or learning.

The first week of school, which started Wednesday, NBC crews taped three days and followed two pupils through the day, including when one got up for the first day. Vogel said there's been very little mugging for the camera and that the students, after an initial curiosity, just accepted the cameras as normal.

"We're trying to be as fly on the wall as we can be," Vogel said. Freckmann said she isn't worried.

Vogel is planning on being at the school at least once a week, more so during important times of the year. He said that it's the only way that the cameras will be able to catch those "teachable moments."

The first report starts Friday, with a taped piece on the first day of school focusing primarily on two pupils. The class also will be part of a live shot on "Today."

Although this year's pupils are settled upon, it's likely that many if not all of the students will be different by the time NBC News finishes "Class of 2020" a baker's dozen years from now. Some students might move away, others will go to private school.

"I wanted it to be public school all the way in the sense of having the whole country watching," Vogel said. "I wanted it to be as mainstream as possible because the average family can't afford private school."

One concern for NBC and the school district is confidentiality. None of NBC's work will identify the school nor show the street it is on; only the children's and parents' first names will be used.

"We're very concerned and rightly so about the confidentiality about this," Vogel said.

Freckmann said she's been impressed by the parents' level of commitment. Anyone -- parents, the school or the network -- can back out of the project at any time.

"The parents seem to be fairly comfortable," Freckmann said. "Once it hits the TV, if there's any ramifications, I don't know if that will make anybody reconsider."