What George Clooney, Dr. Dre, Pitbull, LeBron have in common: Starting their own schools

USA TODAY | By Erin Richards | 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, while 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 under-served students a leg up in the film and television industry.

Also in June, district officials announced 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 during a news conference in L.A. on June 16.

L.A. 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 LA 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, the founders of Working Title Films, and Bryan Lourd, the 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, is slated 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 of 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 under-served students and connects classes to careers in the sports industry, from sports medicine to broadcasting to marketing. Students even run and produce a Sirius XM channel, SLAM Radio.

Pitbull performs prior to NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix Raceway on March 8, 2020. Ralph Freso, AP

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 a total of 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 new 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 other celebrities, local artists or college professors coming 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.

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