Quinta Brunson was ‘a scaredy-cat.’ Then she met the teacher who inspired her sitcom

Quinta Brunson in her series “Abbott Elementary.”
(Gilles Mingasson / ABC)

The halls of “Abbott Elementary” feature no clean rugs, few working lights and seemingly no one to care — except for earnest second-grade teacher Janine Teagues and her fellow teachers. And while creator and star Quinta Brunson wrote the ABC series as a comedy, it also reflects how majority Black and brown schools are often underfunded. Which is no joke.

Brunson, the daughter of a kindergarten teacher, grew up in the West Philadelphia school system and attended a nontraditional school she adored. That experience ultimately informed “Abbott,” an earlier iteration of which was named after her elementary school, Harrity Elementary — where Brunson attended Ahali, a semi-independent “learning village” on the upper floor, from first to fifth grade.

“I had a wonderful elementary school and loved school so much,” Brunson told The Times. “I had some of the best teachers in the world from elementary school onward. It was really positive, which I think allowed me to make this jump from a very positive viewpoint.”

It was a middle school teacher of Brunson’s, though, who inspired the series’ eventual title: Ms. Abbott.

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“Ms. Abbott has always stuck with me throughout my life,” Brunson said. “In a way, I didn’t know why she was my favorite. I couldn’t put my finger on it. She just was. I think that’s what a good teacher does. I think it’s like the Maya Angelou quote, ‘People always remember how you make them feel,’ and she always made me feel good.”

Ms. Abbott, Brunson recalled, eased her transition into middle school after starting elementary in her mother’s kindergarten class and spending time before and after school in her mother’s classroom through fifth grade. “I was in the same building as her, and when I got out and went to middle school, I was a little scaredy-cat,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave my mom, and [Ms. Abbott] helped transition me out of it.”

Similar to Janine, Ms. Abbott pursued ambitious plans for her students: Once, she transformed the entire classroom into a planetarium, which was toured by other classes and even attracted news coverage. Another time, she held a pretzel sale that involved students both making and selling the snacks — which, as Brunson points out, “are a big deal in Philadelphia.”

Unfortunately, the event — designed to help the students develop a work ethic — meant arriving at school at 6 a.m., which wasn’t possible for Brunson’s parents. “Ms. Abbott came to my house and got me because she felt so badly that I needed to be a part of that,” Brunson said. “I’m so grateful because I think selling those pretzels helped me learn how to sell a show.”

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Ms. Abbott even encouraged Brunson’s sixth-grade class to use the money earned selling candy bars for limousine transport and a meal at a fancy restaurant to celebrate the end of the school year. Brunson said, “It was so absurd to go eat at one of those fancy restaurants with these little sixth-grade children, but she did things like that, just never stopped going above and beyond.”

But Brunson realizes that her relationship with the American education system was the exception, not the norm, and she feels that her show is a way of addressing that.

“It’s a bigger commentary on America’s treatment of lower classes,” said Brunson, whose beloved learning village is now closed. “Our country doesn’t care as much about its lower classes as its richer class ... and because of that, schools like Abbott are suffering. Our funding should definitely be going more into the pockets of these schools than it is a billionaire’s venture.

“We just don’t care enough about it,” she continued. “Because if we did, schools wouldn’t be in that position, and they’d be fully funded already. End of story.”

With its story of insufficient funding in a school with predominantly Black and brown students, “Abbott Elementary” thus tells a bigger story, one reflected in a 2018 study conducted by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which concluded that wealthier white school districts receive around $1,200 more per child than poorer, nonwhite districts.

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The latter are also more often labeled as “troubled”: They have the highest suspension rates, school-to-prison pipelines and failed standardized tests. And placing the blame on students and educators is a diversion from the problem of underfunding.

“My goal with the show is to make people laugh, but I do hope that it gets people thinking,” Brunson said. “And [that] it puts a little bit of pressure on the people who need to be pressured a little.”

Brunson has already witnessed support from community members interested in donating to schools in need after watching the show — building on support from ABC itself, which invited teachers to attend the show’s premiere (and sent them to Disneyland) and has partnered with Scholastic to donate supplies to schools in Philadelphia and around the country.

“Should teachers be working purely off donations? No, they should get what they need from the schools, from the school districts, from the government. But in the meantime, I think it’s wonderful if people are called to action from this show,” Brunson said. “Sometimes it’s just support. If you know a teacher in your life, just give them support and [an] ear when they’re talking. Sometimes it’s going to public government meetings and demanding more for teachers. I’m excited to see what ways people do it.”

‘Abbott Elementary’

Where: ABC

When: 9 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)