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High School Drop-Ins : TV Celebrities Return to Class with a Lesson or Two to Share


Funny folks Roseanne and Tom Arnold, Bill Cosby, Burt Reynolds and Howie Mandel return to high school for ABC's "Class Clowns." But the message behind the one-hour comedy special is no laughing matter: Stay in school and finish your education.

Executive producer Ernest Chambers explains, "With the stars coming out and telling about the wonderful time they had in high school and by paying tribute to these kids for the work they do in school, the kids come away with the feeling that school is a wonderful time in your life. Don't give it up and don't pass it up."

Chambers says the dropout rate is as high as 40% in some low-income communities. "In some neighborhoods in Detroit, it is as high as 90%. The parents are saying to their kids, 'Don't waste your time in school. Go out and get a job and bring home some money.' That is what is happening to the vast underclass. Actually, kids get involved in drugs, prostitution and crime."

Making the special was an education for Chambers. "One of the things I learned is how much the problem has to do with the parents," he says. "Their parents are not enlightened and don't encourage their kids to stay in school. They don't go to PTA meetings."

Despite the good intentions behind "Class Clowns," Chambers admits to having a difficult time rounding up talent for the special. "I called some other people who shall remain nameless who said, 'I hated high school. I hated those people. I won't do it.' "

In "Class Clowns," Burt Reynolds returns to Twin Lakes High School and the New Palm Beach High School of the Performing Arts in Florida; Bill Cosby visits Central High in Philadelphia; Howie Mandel returns his Northview High in Toronto, and the Arnolds visited their daughter Jennifer's Westview High School in Los Angeles.

"We didn't get to a real inner-city school," Chambers says. "Central High is a very mixed school, very interracial, but has all income levels from the very poor to the very rich because it is a school for really good students. They come from all over the city."

Ironically, three of the "Class Clowns" never graduated from high school. Mandel attended Northview for four years but didn't finish. Cosby received his G.E.D. (high school graduation equivalency diploma) while in the Navy and later graduated from Temple University and received his Ph.D in education from the University of Massachusetts.

Roseanne, Chambers says, joked with the students about the fact she didn't graduate. "She said, 'Maybe I shouldn't be here talking to you about staying in school because I didn't. I dropped out. I got hit by a car, I had a baby when I was 17 and I spent a year in a mental institution and I did all right. You can try this if you want, but I think it's a lot easier for you to go to school.' "

Chambers discovered Mandel didn't seem much older than the students he was addressing. "He was the most relatable for the kids," Chambers says. "He made a comment which I thought was wonderful. He said, 'One of the reasons you've got to stay in school is that every day you get together with 2,000 people of the same age and the same interests. You will never have that opportunity again in your life.' "

The celebrities spent up to two days at their high schools. Mandel takes viewers on a freewheeling tour of his school.

Cosby does a monologue about his old algebra teacher and finally receives his diploma from Central High. "He leads the students in the singing of the alma mater," Chambers says. "It reminded me of 'Dead Poet's Society'. It is very moving."

Reynolds coaches an acting class and is reunited with an old girlfriend who is still involved with the school. "He was dating her the same time he was dating another girl," Chambers says. "He thought they didn't know about it. In fact, they both knew about it."

The Arnolds hold rap sessions with the Westview students. "One of the things about Roseanne is that she has that ability to speak so directly with the kids in a way that most parents don't," Chambers says. "They accept her as one of them."

The students, he says, "were really moved, touched and impressed by the fact that these big stars cared enough about them."

"Class Clowns" airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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