Pitbull’s school: Star promotes a radical idea for at-risk kids

Written by Neely Tucker

MIAMI

Armando Christian Pérez, a.k.a. the pop mogul Pitbull, is in a sixth-floor classroom of Sports Leadership and Management. It’s a new charter school he is supporting just outside the rough Little Havana neighborhood where he was raised.

It was “Pérez” who grew up on the turbulent streets below, selling drugs as a teenager. But by the time he became the international star who has sold tens of millions of singles, he was “Pitbull.” He was Mr. 305, Mr. Worldwide, the blue-eyed Cuban American rapper whose signature quote is “Dale,” (“Go for it,” more or less) and who will be singing the official World Cup song this year with Jennifer Lopez and Claudia Leitte.

It’s not clear whether it’s the man himself or his stage persona — Pérez or Pitbull — who goes over to the classroom window, his three-piece suit tailored just so, gesturing toward the steel and glass skyscrapers of downtown Miami that glimmer in the distance.

“This isn’t a trick — it’s obtainable,” he says. “I didn’t grow up here seeing things that were so motivating or inspiring. Down there,” he nods to the pavement below, “you don’t see the ways out.”

So, as a means of helping a new generation find exit routes from the neighborhood, the 33-year-old has become the promoter and spokesman of this unusual charter — a middle and high school devoted to an education based around the sports industry — which might soon open a branch in the District.

At Sports Leadership and Management, or SLAM, sixth-graders start rotating through introductory classes devoted to the school’s “academies” in sports medicine, management and broadcasting (playing sports is not emphasized). All the way through 12th grade, lessons in all subjects, from algebra to English, will turn to sports for examples and anecdotes.

As they advance, students will take electives in the three academies — maybe “Care and Prevention of Sports Injuries” in the medicine curriculum, or “Sports Business Administration” on the business side, and “Digital Media and Multimedia Design” in broadcasting.

“We’re still teaching basic financial principles, like the difference between saving and investing, but doing it around sports themes,” says Stan Yanowitz, who teaches marketing and finance.

By the time students are in ninth grade, they should be looking for internships, says Alex Tamargo, SLAM’s principal. By college, “they should have some hands-on experience and education” directly related to the sports world.

“If they decide that sports isn’t what they want, they’ve still got an education that serves them in any college experience,” he says.

It’s all based on the idea of attracting kids who love sports — even if it’s just watching — and using that interest to propel them forward in the classroom. National charter school officials say it is likely the first of its kind among the 6,000 charters across the country.

It has also been a massive hit: 3,000 students filed applications for the 740 spots in sixth through 11th grades, even though the seven-story school building isn’t finished and 12th grade won’t be offered until next fall.

Sergio Garcia loved the idea. A 15-year-old break-dancing phenom, he came to SLAM for the dance class thinking that teaching dance might be his safest long-term bet. But he also has an eye on acting and dancing in films.

“I save 8 percent of everything I earn for acting classes,” he says, his manner as polished as his routine, “and I got a callback from a movie I auditioned for ... but teaching might be a good amount of the money I can earn.”

Demand is so high that the school’s parent company is planning five similar schools elsewhere in South Florida and is looking at the District as a “key city” for expansion.

That company is Academica, a for-profit, Miami-based enterprise that provides support to about 120 nonprofit charter schools in five states (more than 80 are in Florida). It opened Somerset Preparatory Academy in Southeast Washington last September as a toe-hold in the region. It’s not a sports school, but company officials like the Washington area for a SLAM-like enterprise.

“We’ve met with Major League Baseball, with the Nationals, about partnerships, and we’re actively looking at D.C.,” says chief executive Fernando Zulueta. “There are areas that would benefit from innovative programs that keep students engaged, and pockets of poverty that are underserved by high-performing schools.”

The District has 109 charter schools that offer their 37,000 students a variety of programs but nothing like SLAM, says Theola Labbé-DeBose, spokeswoman for the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

“As the city’s approval body for new applications, we look for a high-quality programs that have a clear plan for how it will educate D.C. students,” she wrote in an e-mail. “We are open to new programs that can show how students will benefit from the education model.”

To help get SLAM off the ground in Miami, Academica officials turned to Pérez/Pitbull.

Pitbull: Education is the real revolution

International superstar Armando Perez, better known as Pitbull, is promoting a charter school in the Miami neighborhood where he was raised. Nia-Malika Henderson caught up with Mr. Worldwide at the 2013 National Charter Schools Conference, where he delivered the keynote address.

Link to video

The father of six young children, three of them in Academica schools, he had already given motivational speeches at several schools. He doesn’t contribute financially to SLAM but agreed to do speeches and media appearances touting it.

“I know you might be thinking: ‘What is Pitbull doing here today?’ ” Pérez told a national charter school conference in a keynote address in Washington last July, drawing laughs. “I’m thinking the same thing ... [but] I’m not just a charter school advocate. First and foremost, I’m a charter school parent.”

Tamargo, a 17-year educator and a principal for a decade, had no qualms about bringing a pop star with risque songs and videos on board. The product of a split family, Pérez grew up nearby, once spent time in a Georgia foster home and sold drugs as a teen.

Today, Pérez credits two grade-school teachers with giving him the confidence to break out of that downward spiral. He now performs with A-list talent such as Lopez, Ne-Yo, Marc Anthony, Chris Brown and Christina Aguilera. He’s a pitchman for products including Dr Pepper and Kodak.

“He has become a hero to many students by having overcome tremendous adversity as a child,” Tamargo wrote in an e-mail. “We are fortunate to be working with him to ensure that the SLAM program helps instill those positive values. We recognize that Armando is an artist and that he creates music for many different audiences. That is no different than with authors who write or actors who perform for audiences of different ages.”

Also, he says, when Pérez/Pitbull got involved promoting the school, applications shot through the roof.

SLAM Miami Principal Alex Tamargo, left, and Assistant Principal Rey Breto look out over the  neighborhood. SLAM Miami Principal Alex Tamargo, left, and Assistant Principal Rey Breto look out over the neighborhood. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

The school, located outside Little Havana, offers  “academies” in sports medicine, management and broadcasting. The school, located outside Little Havana, offers “academies” in sports medicine, management and broadcasting. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Wait a minute — high schools with celebrity endorsements?

Sure. Entertainers and athletes are lending their brands to schools in steadily growing numbers. These schools — there might be two dozen or so — are almost always in difficult neighborhoods and promise radical change for a largely minority demographic.

Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, says it’s not a gimmick. Since most charters don’t have a building when they receive authorization, she said, they need a cash infusion up front. “The first order of business is attracting families, and having a well-known quantity can help.”

Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, agrees that celebrity-brand schools are not to be dismissed. “It’s not a numerical trend, but they certainly are having an outsized impact. ... After the Pitbull speech at the convention last year, it was popping up in all sorts of forums that don’t have anything to do with education.”

The Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy started in Las Vegas in 2001. Oprah Winfrey spent $40 million to open her Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa in 2007, and has donated millions to other charters domestically. Former NBA star (and ESPN commentator) Jalen Rose founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy in Detroit in 2011.

Prime Prep Academy, co-founded by former NFL star (and current NFL Network analyst) Deion “Prime Time” Sanders, opened campuses in Dallas and Fort Worth in 2012. Pop star John Legend is vice chairman of the board for the Harlem Village Academies, and Hugh Jackman and Katie Couric are board members. Sandra Bullock (born in Arlington, living in New Orleans) was awarded the People’s Choice Favorite Humanitarian Award in 2013 for her contributions to the Warren Easton Charter High School in the Crescent City.

Still, an above-the-marquee name doesn’t come with a halo or a lack of real-world problems.

The sex abuse scandal at Winfrey’s school shortly after it opened (a matron was accused of assaulting at least six girls; she was later acquitted) became international news. There were so many problems in so many areas at the Jalen Rose Academy that the entire teaching staff left after its first year; the school is trying to regain its footing. Prime Prep is under investigation by the Texas Education Agency for misspending resources, and Sanders (who became the football coach) has been fired, rehired and fired again.

SLAM, meanwhile, is drawing on Academica’s 15-year history for its corporate and educational backbone. The company provides accounting, legal and business support for its schools (for a fee). Although the schools are separate entities, principals and teachers can move from school to school under the Academica umbrella.

It also has been profitable. The Miami Herald headlined a 2011 article on Academica, “Cashing in on Kids.” But the article also noted that beyond the profit margin, “Academica’s schools consistently get high marks for academic achievement, with some schools earning national recognition.”

Tamargo moved to SLAM from Mater Academy East, an Academica school a few blocks away. A Miami native with a sports background — he was signed to a pro baseball contract out of high school before an elbow injury — he is already familiar with the neighborhood, many of the kids and their issues.

“Eighty-five percent of our students are Hispanic, 13 percent are African American and 88 percent qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch,” he says. “Most of them live in walking distance, coming from Overtown or Little Havana. ... The area is in desperate need of good schools, and SLAM is that opportunity.”

Sergio Garcia flips through the air as the SLAM Miami dance team performs during a pep rally. Sergio Garcia flips through the air as the SLAM Miami dance team performs during a pep rally. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Girl's varsity basketball players Maite Chirino, left, and Joseline Hernandez , center, celebrate a win with their team. Girl's varsity basketball players Maite Chirino, left, and Joseline Hernandez , center, celebrate a win with their team. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

On a recent morning, Jeff Frawley, the school’s assistant athletic director and ninth-grade English teacher, is at work with his students on basics of the language. Today’s lesson is idioms. This being SLAM, he is pulling examples from sports.

“What we’re going to learn is how applicable these sports terms are to everyday life,” he says. “If I say, ‘You’re barking up the wrong tree,’ what do I mean? What sport is it?” Pursuing an incorrect idea and fox hunting are the answers. He goes on. “A low blow? Hit below the belt? Jump the gun?”

He gives them an assignment of coming up with five idioms, the sport they’re from, and whether they carry negative or positive connotations.

Next door, Crystal Espinosa has split her 11th-grade advanced placement English class into two factions to debate socialism vs. capitalism, pegged to an Internet health-care discussion.

Each student is to scribble down an argument for his or her position, with a quote from the novel they’ve just finished reading (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) as support.

She gets them going with an example illustrating socialism: “Would you love to play basketball if at the end, everybody won?” she asks. “If there were no scholarships? No NBA?”

Both lessons — very sports-oriented and not as much — illustrate how the school works, administrators say, with an emphasis on practicality and real-world experience. The Miami Marlins, whose stadium is a few blocks west, offer students behind-the-scenes looks at how a major league baseball franchise operates, from food service to player development, and executives stop in frequently to do seminars.

It’s not Jock U. — only about two-thirds of students take part in the school’s 23 sports — and SLAM relies on city parks or rented facilities for practices and games.

That was a problem for Nicolas Vaudreuio. The 17-year-old junior stands 6-foot-4 and about 230 pounds, a college-type frame for either football or basketball.

SLAM had no football team this season — and may not get one for another two years, Tamargo says — so Vaudreuio played at his old school, Central High, in Miami while attending classes here. He was skeptical when he first heard of the school — “It looked like a Pitbull fundraiser” — but he was won over by Tamargo.

“The teachers here, they’re really prepared and go right into the lessons every day,” he said. “At Central, the environment was one where you really couldn’t learn.”

He is hoping for football or basketball to help him get to college. “If you’re from the neighborhood, you’re not born with a silver spoon,” he said. “So if you’re going to go to college, you’re going to need financial assistance. ... One way or another, it’s going to take a lot of dedication.”

Pitbull is awarded the keys to SLAM Miami during a school pep rally. He helps promote the charter through speeches and media appearances, and helps rev up the kids, too. Pitbull is awarded the keys to SLAM Miami during a school pep rally. He helps promote the charter through speeches and media appearances, and helps rev up the kids, too. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

In the early afternoon, Pérez — Pitbull — leaves the near-empty classroom and heads to one of his school duties: revving up the kids.

This, as it turns out, is pretty easy.

Once the doors swing open and he hits the open-air courtyard on a fifth-floor deck, the assembled students go nuts, screaming and yelling, holding up phones to take his picture.

He slaps hands with kids, then quick-steps to an elevated stage. He dons a SLAM baseball cap and lets his voice go a little more accented, a little more street. “When I look at you,” he rasps into the microphone, looking at the students, “I see me. ... When I go around the world, I say I’m 305 [Miami’s area code] till I die, and I’m SLAM till I die.”

He throws in his signature “Dale!” The kids scream again, and pretty soon bass-heavy music stars thumping. The school’s dance team comes out and kills a routine to “Timber,” a No. 1 hit by Pitbull and Ke$ha.

In mid-song, the team rushes together into a tight pile. Garcia — the dancer — sprints toward them and, at the last moment, does a spinning-sideways somersault over the top, landing on his feet, then vaulting again.

The crowd eats it up, and you’re not sure whether it’s Pérez or his Pitbull persona who leaps to his feet, pounding his hands together. You wonder if he really was looking at a younger version of himself out there.

Dale!” he says, laughing. “Dale!”

Neely Tucker is a Washington Post staff writer.

E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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