ABC sends Philly high school seniors 'prom in a box'

Ellen Gray
The Philadelphia Inquirer
"Schooled" is a spinoff of "The Goldbergs."

PHILADELPHIA — Like so many high school seniors across the country, the class of 2020 at William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia is missing some traditional milestones this spring, including the prom.

This week, ABC is trying to take a little of the sting out of that loss by sending a "prom in a box" to seniors at the Quaker school that inspired "William Penn Academy." That's the school in the network's 1980s-set sitcom "The Goldbergs" and its' '90s-set spin-off, "Schooled," both created by Penn Charter graduate Adam F. Goldberg.

A promotion for the network's prom-themed episodes on Wednesday, which besides "The Goldbergs" and "Schooled" will also include "American Housewife," the package, according to an ABC spokesperson, includes an instant camera and film, snacks, sashes, crown for a prom king and a queen, punch mix, and a "prom-posal" invitation to watch the shows and post photos of their home proms on social media with the tag #ABCPromNight.

So, OK, it's a PR stunt.

But the choice of Penn Charter, a school founded in 1689 that includes students from prekindergarten through Grade 12, underscores the relationship that's grown up between the school and Goldberg's shows, which frequently include characters who were students or teachers he knew growing up. "Schooled" has periodically gone a step further, flying some of Goldberg's former teachers out to Los Angeles to film short interviews with the actors who play them that are then shown after episodes.

On Tuesday afternoon, one of the seniors receiving a "prom in a box" was Anne Flemming, who said she was "definitely surprised." She'd quickly checked in with two friends, who hadn't yet received their boxes ("I didn't want to spoil the surprise") and said she expected they'd be FaceTiming once theirs arrived.

A box she said included "a huge tin of popcorn and a Polaroid camera" and other goodies wasn't the first good thing to come her way from "Schooled."

The Penn Charter senior's mother, Liz Flemming, teaches math at the school, and thanks to having been Goldberg's eighth-grade algebra teacher, she's a recurring character on "Schooled," where she's played by Lennon Parham.

"Math was not his subject," Flemming said of her former student, who graduated from the school in 1994. "He admits it freely. Although he did OK (in Algebra 1). He probably got a B, or something like that, which he says is his highest math grade ever."

Flemming admits this: "Every time I hear my name on the TV, I kind of like giggle."

When it was Flemming's turn to film an interview with Parham, "I brought (Anne) with me to LA because they paid me to go out and they paid me enough ... to buy her a ticket, because she would love to be a screenwriter. So for her to get to go to the set and meet Adam and meet the actors" and watch some filming "was just awesome to her," Liz Flemming said Tuesday.

Being turned into a TV character "was really fun," she said. "I already enjoyed watching "The Goldbergs" because I would see other teachers that I know (who) had characters. And the names of other students were always kids that I had taught or had known."

During the first season of "Schooled," which premiered in January 2019, she worried that it might not get renewed, "and then it did get renewed and I was so happy," Flemming said, adding, jokingly, "and then my stupid actress got another job."

Parham, who's a regular this season on another ABC sitcom, "Bless This Mess," has managed to be on the show for three episodes this season, though.


Anne Flemming is on the Penn Charter committee planning events for the end of the school year, "and I eavesdrop on the Zoom call a little bit," said her mother, as students talk about things that have had to be canceled or postponed because of the coronavirus.

"They know that on the scale of like, you know, people losing jobs, people losing their lives, they know that it's not life or death. They have food, they have a place to live. So then they kind of feel really, really awful" about the things they're missing, she said. "But then they feel a little bit awful about feeling awful. Because they know that they're still lucky."

For some, missing prom "was one of the biggest things they're upset about," she said, while others are mourning the loss of spring sports or of "color day," a Penn Charter tradition since 1892. A big concern for most is that they should, at some point, have a "normal graduation ceremony," which may not be able to happen for months.

Flemming, a single mother, got a little choked up herself talking about graduation, where teachers "get to give their kids their diploma. And I'm waiting for this for 18 years to be able to be the one to hand her her diploma."