July 5, 2021
From Oprah to Taylor Swift to Tobias Harris, celebrities and pro athletes have long donated portions of their fortunes to schools.
But a growing number of stars are taking their investment in education to the next level. They're launching entire schools tied to their interests, helping students in their hometowns or marshaling their connections to tie academics to the entertainment industry.
It started in earnest in 2011, when NBA great LeBron James and his foundation partnered with Akron Public Schools, seeking to lift a generation of kids out of poverty in his Ohio hometown. Now actor George Clooney and music legend Dr. Dre are pledging money and connections to Los Angeles Unified School District, and rapper Pitbull's sports-themed charter school has spread to three states.
Charitable endeavors of the rich and famous can take many forms. Financially speaking, tax implications for the donor are the same whether you give to schools or any other public charity, said Lawrence Zelenak, a law professor at Duke University. But the pop of good publicity might be greater when a donor starts a school, not to mention the feeling of shaping kids' education and the opportunities they'll receive as a result.
In the latest round of school philanthropy, a group of A-list actors including George Clooney, Don Cheadle and Mindy Kaling are teaming up with Los Angeles Unified to launch a magnet school, the district announced last month. The goal: give underserved students a leg up in the film and television industry.
Also in June, district officials announced that recording artist Andre Young, known as Dr. Dre., and record executive Jimmy Iovine would partner with the district to start a new high school focused on business and technology.
"I want to encourage people like us who have been fortunate and had success to come to these neighborhoods and really do something positive," Iovine said in a news conference in Los Angeles on June 16.
Los Angeles Superintendent Austin Beutner, a wealthy businessman whose connections helped spur the partnerships, said philanthropic gifts to schools are always welcome, but the latest archetype of giving includes time, human capital, industry connections and relationships. In short: the things money can't buy, which could make or break a student's interest in staying engaged.
"The common theme between both of these schools is heavily invested people trying to create the education of the future," Beutner said.
LA schools to merge Hollywood with academics
Both new schools in Los Angeles are set to launch in fall 2022. Besides Clooney, the magnet school is set to involve actors/producers Eva Longoria, Grant Heslov, Kerry Washington and Nicole Avant, along with Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, founders of Working Title Films, and Bryan Lourd, co-chairman of Creative Artists Agency.
The school will be called the Roybal School of Film and Television Production, and the founding members will serve on the school's board to "build a more inclusive pipeline of career-ready talent for the film and television industry," the district said.
The celebrities, or at least people in their web of influence and expertise, will collaborate with district staff to design curriculum that ties academics to real-world work. That could mean the chemistry of makeup application or the physics of set design and lighting, Beutner said.
"The idea is we create a curriculum that we can then scale to 22 more schools," Beutner said in an interview. "They can also help kids get access to internships."
Young and Iovine's school, in south Los Angeles, will seek to help students make connections between the creative, finance and marketing side of the music industry.
"We’re here strictly for the kids and trying to give them a future and something promising that maybe wasn’t available before now," Young said at a news conference.
Miami SLAM school started by Pitbull
Other celebrities have launched charter schools, which are public schools managed by private companies, in their hometowns.
Pitbull, who calls himself "Mr. Worldwide" and "Mr. 305" – a nod to the area code of his hometown, Miami – helped launch a growing chain of charter schools with a sports-themed focus. The flagship Sports Leadership Arts and Management Charter School, or SLAM, opened in Miami in 2012. The school focuses on underserved students and connects classes to careers in the sports industry, including sports medicine, broadcasting and marketing. Students even run and produce a Sirius XM channel, SLAM Radio
SLAM was built on the backbone of Academica, an education service provider that runs office operations for more than 200 charter schools, many in Florida.
The model became so popular that the SLAM Foundation now runs 12 campuses serving more than 5,500 students in Florida, Nevada and Atlanta, according to Milie Sanchez, the organization's chief administrative officer. The foundation plans to open a K-12 school in Mesa, Arizona, in 2022.
Armando Christian Pérez – Pitbull's real name – continues to support the foundation, Sanchez said. Before the pandemic, he visited all the schools at least once a year, often as part of his touring schedule. He also coordinates with other celebrities, local artists and college professors to come to the schools to speak or mentor students.
"Thanks to Armando, we've had opportunities for our students to benefit from workshops and programs sponsored by partners such as Microsoft, Google and NBC Universal and the Latin Grammy Foundation," she said.
Common and Chance the Rapper invest in Chicago
Two rappers from Chicago have invested in their hometown's education scene. Rapper and activist Common, who has won an Emmy, a Grammy and an Oscar, helped launch the charter school Art in Motion on the city's south shore in 2019.
Art in Motion is part of a network of charter schools run by Distinctive Schools.
"The revolution is not only economic and social, it's emotional too, and we're going have all those aspects here at this school for our children to be able to breathe and see and dream," Common said in a recorded ceremony for the school's opening.
Chance the Rapper, also born and raised in Chicago, took a more direct path to support the traditional public school district: He has contributed more than $2 million to help Chicago Public Schools support arts programming.
Former NBA player Jalen Rose stays involved at Detroit charter
More than a decade ago, former NBA player Jalen Rose co-launched the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a charter high school, in Detroit, his hometown.
Rose, a sports analyst for ESPN, is president of the school's board of directors and remains involved in day-to-day operations by mentoring students and leading fundraising efforts, said his assistant, Michelle Ruscitti-Miller.
LeBron James school in Akron, Ohio, is a community effort
In summer 2011, more than 300 third grade students identified by the Akron School District for their low reading scores enrolled in the I Promise Program, an effort of the LeBron James Family Foundation that would give them laptops and bikes.
Since then, I Promise has evolved from a bike giveaway to a service-driven program that supports 1,100 Akron students across the district in sixth through 11th grades. The foundation opened an actual district school in 2018, which now enrolls 343 students in third through fifth grades. There's housing for families experiencing homelessness, and partnerships with Kent State University and the University of Akron that offer I Promise students a path to four years of free college tuition.
National attraction:Educators gather in Akron to learn from success of I Promise School
The school has drummed up national attention in education and philanthropic circles for its efforts to address students' full needs with services like a full pantry and laundry facilities on-site. James has been involved along the way, bringing children to awards ceremonies and into documentaries.
"People ask me: 'Why a school?'" James said at the opening of the I Promise Academy in in 2018. He said he knew exactly what the school's 240 inaugural students were going through, because he had lived it.
"I know the streets they walk. I know the trials and tribulations that they go through. I know the ups and downs. I know all the things they dream about and the nightmares they have," he said. "They're the reason why this school is here today."
Contributing: Jennifer Pignolet, Akron Beacon Journal
Credits: Erin Richards, USA Today