George Clooney's Next Project: A Los Angeles Public High School.
The actor and other celebrities will open a school to prepare teenagers for careers in Hollywood, the latest in a series of donations to city schools by the entertainment industry.
The phrase "giving back to the schools" has frequently meant a cameo appearance on career day or, more commonly, a large check made out to your own child's elite private academy in Los Angeles.
However, the nation's second-largest district will unveil the latest in a series of star-studded collaborations on Monday: a new high school backed by George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Eva Longoria, and Creative Artists Agency principals.
The magnet school is intended to diversify the pipeline of cinematographers, engineers, visual effects artists, and other technical workers in the city's signature job sector. It is one of at least three joint initiatives between Los Angeles schools and entertainment industry benefactors launched in the last two months.
Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, two music producers, announced last week that they would open their own specialized high school in South Los Angeles. In May, a few hundred middle school students performed with pop artist H.E.R. on free guitars, kicking off the second year of a yearlong partnership with the Fender Play Foundation. Additionally, district officials said, additional high-profile initiatives involving robotics and music are in the works with prominent entertainment figures.
Hollywood's sudden involvement is a testament to the superintendent of schools, Austin Beutner's, clout. Mr. Beutner, a wealthy investor, will leave his job in two weeks after spending more than a year leveraging his personal connections to help schools affected by pandemics.
Some education advocates doubt that his philanthropic approach will make a significant difference in a district with approximately 650,000 students, the majority of whom are low-income, and where eight in ten students are Latino or Black.
“Charity is not a substitute for justice,” California State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond stated. “While it is encouraging that people are making these investments, we have a much larger task ahead of us.”
The renewed emphasis on education in Los Angeles reflects additional concerns, including mounting alarm over growing income disparities and the industry's need to find new ways to recruit workers in the #HollywoodSoWhite era. Additionally, there is a growing appreciation, post-pandemic, for keeping low-income students in school, despite the financial strains associated with supporting their families.
“Everyone recognizes that the industry must improve,” said Mr. Clooney, who resides on the West Coast in Studio City but spoke via Zoom from his Italian villa. “There is a point in time when doing things becomes easier.”
For generations, the Los Angeles public schools have faced epic challenges. The district covers an area of 710 square miles and is home to approximately 1,400 schools. Approximately 80% of students live in poverty, and nearly 100,000 are enrolled in English classes. The district distributed over 140 million grab-and-go meals to children and adults during the coronavirus pandemic. The effort was part of a larger school-based relief effort that included the distribution of diapers and computers, as well as the administration of a mass vaccination program.
Mr. Beutner faced numerous crises during his tenure. Teachers in Los Angeles went on strike for six days shortly after he signed a three-year contract as superintendent.
California schools were among the last in the country to reopen as the pandemic subsided. Although Mr. Beutner has stated that instruction will be entirely face-to-face in the fall, only a small percentage of Los Angeles Unified School District students have returned in person.
One bright spot is that, at least this year, school funding is adequate. California, which has a sizable state surplus, plans to spend $96 billion next year on elementary schools and community colleges, a $21,000 per pupil investment.
Mr. Beutner noted that while the district's per-pupil funding has increased by 40% over the last three years, it still falls short of New York City's — nearly $30,000 per student.
“We are emerging from a period of disinvestment in public education,” Dr. Darling-Hammond, an education scholar, explained. “People recognize a need and wish to fill it.”
Programs like the proposed specialized schools "are a mixed bag," she said, frequently diverting scarce resources to tangential priorities and fluctuating in popularity according to their supporters' attention spans.
For example, the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, founded by Tony Bennett, has operated within New York City's public school system for decades. And LeBron James founded a highly successful public school in Ohio that includes wraparound social services. However, a group of Texas charter schools founded in 2012 by former NFL player Deion Sanders went bankrupt after three scandal-plagued years.
Sarah Reckhow, a Michigan State University expert on education philanthropy, said that while such philanthropy is widespread and undoubtedly motivated by good intentions, its prevalence reflects a fundamental inequality in the way children are educated in the United States.
“It's very typical and extremely unequal, and it frequently exacerbates existing inequalities,” Ms. Reckhow explained. Hollywood's recent incursions into Los Angeles public schools "are entirely consistent with that standard."
Career-related magnet schools, according to Beutner, complement the district's traditional schools and help engage students who are increasingly focused on the need for a paycheck. Additionally, he stated that supporters such as Mr. Clooney or Mr. Iovine can provide a "margin of excellence" above and beyond what public funding can accomplish.
“It's about making the instructional portion of the day relevant by embedding those skills in the curriculum and connecting them to a job,” he explained.
Mr. Iovine stated that he and Dr. Dre, whose real name is Andre Young, approached Los Angeles Unified with their proposal for a new high school after establishing an academy focused on the intersection of creative work and business at the University of Southern California in 2013.
“What we discovered at the USC academy is that in order to be more effective, we must reach these children earlier,” Mr. Iovine explained.
Mr. Clooney and his producing partner, Grant Heslov, stated that they had reached a similar conclusion in their efforts to diversify their productions' hiring. “You desire a more diverse crew,” Mr. Heslov explained, “but there are simply not enough trained individuals available.”
Mr. Clooney stated that he discussed the matter with Eric Fellner, co-chairman of Working Title Films, over dinner about two weeks ago. Mr. Fellner informed him of his 2018 co-founding of a London school aimed at resolving the same issue in the British film industry.
Mr. Clooney stated that he approached Bryan Lourd, co-chairman of C.A.A., whose talent agency assisted Los Angeles Unified during the pandemic. Mr. Beutner had introduced them to district officials overseeing a small magnet program at the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, which serves primarily low-income students, within days, he said.
Eleven days later, they agreed to open the Roybal School of Film and Television Production, which will be modeled after the magnet program, with an initial enrollment of approximately 120 students and a curriculum developed by district teachers and staff in collaboration with industry professionals.
Along with Mr. Clooney, Mr. Heslov, Mr. Cheadle, Mr. Lourd, Mr. Fellner, and Ms. Longoria, the advisory board will include Nicole Avant, a producer and the wife of Ted Sarandos, co-CEO of Netflix; Tim Bevan, Mr. Fellner's co-chairman at Working Title Films; and actors Kerry Washington and Mindy Kaling.
Mr. Lourd stated that the group intends to engage a diverse group of colleagues, craft guilds, and entertainment companies. “The entertainment industry has 160,000 union jobs below the line — 750,000 if you include digital work and all the other things,” Mr. Lourd explained, referring to the show business term for specialized work behind the camera.
Ms. Avant stated that even in Los Angeles, the majority of young people do not envision themselves in these jobs. “They have no idea how you might begin your career as a grip, costumer, or screenwriter,” Ms. Avant, producer of "The Black Godfather," explained. "They're asking, 'How do I send my résumé?' How the devil do I begin?'"
Mr. Beutner stated that the school would open in the fall of 2022 with an initial budget of approximately $7 million, with the district covering approximately 80% of costs and the board and other donors covering the remaining 20%. He explained that the plan is to develop curriculum at the magnet school and then scale it across the district. The group stated that establishing intensive internships will be a primary objective.
Mr. Iovine and Mr. Clooney both expressed surprise at the speed with which the partnerships formed. Los Angeles Unified School District has a long history of being known for its soul-crushing bureaucracy.
“We anticipated a much longer process,” Mr. Clooney explained. “However, we discovered that we were pushing against an open door.”
Both men acknowledged that maintaining their schools would be difficult, but noted that the individuals involved have a long history of community involvement. “Nobody is more adept at guilting a studio, union, or guild into taking action,” Mr. Clooney said, referring to the individuals behind the film and television magnet school. "That is what we do."
Mr. Beutner believes the district's interest is unlikely to wane as well, in part because his deputy will serve as interim superintendent when he leaves at the end of the month. He notes that while the show business schools are not large, they are the result of a long campaign to convince Hollywood to provide more than the occasional internship.
“For the first time in Los Angeles, we're engaging a whole group of community members who have historically been disengaged from our public schools,” Mr. Beutner explained. “Our students are not neighbors with makeup artists and set designers, nor do they have family members who are actors or songwriters. People who haven't walked a mile in their shoes have no idea what a difference it can make — just the sense of belonging and the possibility of doing these things themselves.”