Why teachers (and Philly) feel so seen in "Abbott Elementary," according to Sheryl Lee Ralph aka Mrs. Howard

Wake Up With WURD's Solomon Jones interviews actress Sheryl Lee Ralph about the hit show "Abbott Elementary," why teachers love it so much and the miseducation of Philadelphia schoolchildren.


Listen above or read on for edited excerpts of the transcript.

WURD's Solomon Jones: We are joined now by our next guest, actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, an acclaimed singer, activist and author. She's also the wife of state Sen. Vincent Hughes. She's got a new hit television show called “Abbott Elementary.” Good morning. How are you?

Sheryl Lee Ralph: I'm wonderful. Thank you. I woke up in my right mind, able to dress myself and do all those important things, so I know I'm grateful and fabulous. 

WURD: Tell us about “Abbott Elementary.” What's the show about? 

SLR: “Abbott Elementary” is about a group of teachers in a very challenged school, in an urban city that we all know and love called … Philadelphia! And these teachers, they are not willing to break for the sake of their children. They go to the mat for their students and they love what they do. The show is created by Quinta Brunson, who's from Philly. 

WURD: What flavor do you think she brings to this particular show? 

SLR: I mean, it's everything. From the use of the language to what the kids they're actually learning [words like jawn and hoagie]. The language is very particular to Philly. You know, the fact that one of the teachers, Mrs. Howard, the character that I play, has a thing for ABC’s Jim Gardner (a broadcast talent since 1976 on Action News). They're things that are Philly specific and, for whatever reason, they are casting around the country. People are like, “Okay, what is all this about?”

We've got wonderful eyes on Philadelphia. 

WURD: What do you hope will come out of this show? We have some very real challenges in our schools here in Philadelphia. What do you think the spotlight will do for our schools?

SLR: Like you just said, we've got some very serious challenges here in Philadelphia that people should be up in arms about. Parents and communities should be at schools every day, talking to the school superintendent, the school board about the education here in Philadelphia. It is unacceptable that you can walk into one school and not have a water fountain, not have a radio station, not have a TV station, but 3 miles down the road is a school that's got all of that. 

You've got schools 3 miles apart where $10,000 extra are being paid per student. Something is absolutely wrong about this. 

We've got schools in Philadelphia where kids are learning from books that, like in the show, are old and everybody knows it. And it's unacceptable. Philly’s kids deserve the best education that anybody else in the state is getting.

Why is it acceptable for them? It's wrong. Don't get me started about that because you know this is an important subject to me, and I'm hoping that this shows shine eyes on that, that sort of educational inequity.

WURD: So you play a teacher named Barbara Howard. Tell us about your character. 

SLR: Everybody's got a teacher like Ms. Howard. Everybody has that one teacher. You will never forget. Everybody has that one teacher. Oooh she was strict on you, but you loved her because she knew that potential. She saw the good in you. She might not remember you 10 years from now, but you will definitely remember her.

Everyone has a teacher like Mrs. Howard, says the actress who plays her, Sheryl Lee Ralph. Photo courtesy of ABC.


WURD: Yeah. I had a teacher like that named Ms. McGee at Rowen Elementary School in West Oak Lane. That's a beautiful thing. [Both laugh heartily.]

So what about this show makes it so unique? And so funny? I'm hearing great things about the show. 

SLR: I've got to say: Quinta Brunson. Educated here in Philadelphia, her mother was a teacher, went on to be educated at UPenn. She's bright, she's smart, she's caring. She's aware of what is going on in this city. And she loves this city enough to offer herself up for the great change that is needed. People love the dialogue, people love the script. She's assembled probably one of the best ensemble casts on TV. And she's just doing an amazing job.

I really have to say it's Quinta Brunson.

WURD: “Abbott Elementary” is a new hit television show on ABC. When does it air? 

SLR: It airs Tuesday night at nine o'clock. If you miss it because you didn't tune in, you can stream it the very next day on Hulu.

WURD: Well, we're looking forward to that and I want to wish you a happy founders day. I know yesterday [Jan. 13] was Founders Day for Delta Sigma Theta so happy belated. 

SLR: Thank you. Thank you. The 13th is a lucky number, baby. 

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