School is the setting for two new programs on television tonight, one fictionally funny and the other distressingly real.
The comedy is "What a Country!," another of the first-run syndicated series that KTLA Channel 5 has slotted weeknights at 7:30 p.m. Set in a night-school citizenship class where immigrants learn the strange ways of our country, it is one of the most promising entries of the fall season.
The first episode doesn't deliver on all of that promise. Written by executive producers Martin Rips and Joseph Staretski, it relies too heavily on stereotypes and malapropisms ("I am Russian defective," instead of defector; "Can I prostitute?" instead of prosecute), and serves mainly to introduce the characters.
But it's refreshing nonetheless for what it isn't: It isn't about a family, and it isn't about whites. The students enrolled in the class are Pakistani, Chinese, Hungarian, African, Latino and Soviet (the latter played by comedian Yakov Smirnoff). The show's promise lies in exploring (not exploiting) how they react and contribute to their new society.
Contributing to society is exactly what you fear the subjects of the documentary on KCET Channel 28 tonight at 8 won't be doing. They are "Dropouts"--teen-agers who failed to graduate with their peers at Venice High School last spring and appear to be condemning themselves to living on the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder.
The focus is on Venice High School, where the dropout rate last year was 40%, but the problem extends throughout the country and is on the rise. Indeed, KCET will be broadcasting another program about its national dimensions Oct. 1, "Project Second Chance: Dropouts in America."
For this hourlong "KCET Journal," producer Nancy Salter, whose previous documentaries for the public TV station include the insightful "Junior High" in 1983, spent last spring at Venice, following three students who were on the verge of quitting school and interviewing other students, administrators, counselors, teachers, police officers and court officials.
What emerges is a disheartening picture of dedicated adults trying in a variety of ways to keep these young people in school but fighting against forces that more often than not are out of their power to control--drugs, pregnancy, family disruption, lack of parental concern.
"We appear to be willing to build larger prisons; we do not appear to be willing to spend the money that is necessary to effectively educate these minors," says Juvenile Court Judge Roosevelt Dorn. "My position is, we can't afford not to pay, because either we're going to pay now or we're going to pay dearly later on."