TV's latest reality series features 23 strangers from every walk of life who spend a year together learning about the world and discovering new challenges. No, not "The Real World." It's "Kindergarten."
Geared for children ages 3 to 7, "Kindergarten," premiering Sunday on HBO Family, is set at the Upper Nyack Elementary School--about an hour north of New York City.
Award-winning filmmakers Karen Goodman and her husband Kirk Simon spent 55 days filming the class' daily activities and another 25 days interviewing the multiracial class of kids on such subjects as the tooth fairy and Christmas holidays. One episode focuses on the disappearance of the class' toy gingerbread man and their attempts to follow clues throughout the school to find him. Another installment captures their excitement as they vote on names for the class' new pet guinea pig.
The 13-part series captures their subjects' open and honest assessment of their joys and fears. "I had tears in my eyes 'cause I didn't know where my mommy was," sniffs one youngster on the first day of school.
Goodman and Simon, who won Emmys for HBO's "Chimps: So Like Us" and "No Applause, Just Throw Money: A Suite for Street Performers," scouted between 80 to 90 kindergartens in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut before settling on Upper Nyack Elementary.
"In some places," says Goodman, "the kids, I thought, were being pushed to read before they were ready when they should just be learning about the experience of being in a classroom community." The couple also chose to stay away from both private and inner-city schools.
"We were looking for a public school," says Goodman. "We wanted a place for all intents and purposes that could be really anywhere ... a place that would be a good role model. We were certainly not looking for anything too precious," or adds Goodman, a school that would cost parents $20,000 a year. The filmmakers also wanted a population of kids that represented both economic and ethnic diversity.
Upper Nyack, says Simon, is a venerable community on the Hudson River that has a town center and streets lined with old homes. "We really wanted a sense that some kids could and do walk to school and there was a pretty green outdoor space. In terms of economic diversity, the principal described the population as from well-off to welfare."
The main reason, though, for choosing Upper Nyack Elementary was Jennifer Johnson, the young, vibrant kindergarten teacher. "I think Jennifer has a good balance between beginning academics, socialization and playtime," says Simon. "Occasionally, the kids would be assigned homework which is something like bring in pictures of your family--things you work on in the classroom."
Johnson, who was entering her fourth year of teaching when the series was shot, has a firm and gentle hand with her young charges. "One of the things that is so critical at that age that she was able to pull off even in a relatively larger class was building a relationship with each child," says Goodman. "There were kids who came into kindergarten who could read on day one and there were kids who by the end of the school year could barely recognize sounds. She met each kid developmentally where they were at."
Before filming started, the principal called all the parents about the documentary series. Almost across the board, parents were willing to have their child participate. "There were other kindergarten classes at the school if someone did object," says Simon. "They could go to another class. Jennifer also teaches a second kindergarten in the afternoon, so if someone truly wanted Jennifer they could go to her afternoon class."
The children were completely natural in front of the camera. "After the first day or two they really forgot about us," explains Goodman.
"We made a valiant attempt to be as unobtrusive as possible. After the first couple of days, we were old news. Kindergarten was new. This was their first school experience. There was so much more to focus on. We were pretty boring by comparison."
To make the children even more comfortable, the filmmakers used only the available classroom light. "We had up to three cameras," says Simon. "We had 23 subjects and they could scatter all about the room. Often we were in separate corners of the room or when Jennifer had them on the carpet reading we would have one camera on Jennifer and two on the kids."
Goodman and Simon didn't have any preconceived outline of how the series would play out. "We wanted to cover what was there," he says.
When the kids became interested in their teeth, the filmmakers built a whole episode around that subject. "That was a gift from the children," says Simon. "Teeth are a big concern."
Especially the loss of baby teeth. Goodman and Simon even filmed bedtime between the shy, blond Lara and her mother the night the little girl put her first lost tooth under the pillow for the tooth fairy.
"We sent a note home with the kids saying we have a lot of footage about teeth and the next time one of your kids loses a tooth, can we go home and do bedtime with you?," says Simon. "It didn't take but a week for the phone to ring."
The editing process for "Kindergarten" began several months into the shooting. "Some things emerged out of the editing," says Goodman. "Some things were obvious like the holiday show. We had a sense that we would talk to them about the holidays and Santa and what they believe in. There are some pretty wild stories."
\o7 New episodes of "Kindergarten" can be seen Sundays at 7:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on HBO Family, with repeats at those times daily through the week. The network has rated it TV-Y (suitable for young children).