The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

L.A. school district plans star-studded summer learning for students — with James Cameron teaching ‘Titanic’ and a book group with Alicia Keys and others

(Snap. Inc.)

School districts around the country are laboring over how to offer summer school to students who spent the spring at home, trying to learn remotely during the global coronavirus pandemic. Programs are likely to look different from they have in the past, with most of them online, but it’s safe to say none will look quite like what is being planned for Los Angeles public school students.

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second-largest district in the country, is partnering with some big names in entertainment, sports, music, social media and business to provide unique online summer offerings.

Eighty percent of the more than half a million students in LAUSD live in low-income homes, and a recent district survey found 57 percent of district families have at least one parent who lost a job during the pandemic. The district says it distributed a digital device to every students during the past two months and secured Internet access for all of them as well — so those who want to can participate.

The aim of the effort, Superintendent Austin Beutner said, is to get students hooked on learning by using innovative ways of approaching material to introduce core subjects, such as reading and science.

“We have to meet them where they are, or we’ll never get better,” he said. “And there’s never been a time when it’s more important to meet them where they are.”

Some of it just sounds fun.

Even before summer school classes officially start June 24, the district and the social media company Snap Inc. are jointly launching a four-episode show on Snapchat called “The A-List Book Club” that will feature four celebrities talking about books they love.

The book club is aimed at high schools students and will be aired on Snapchat (which restricts users to those age 13 and older), and the LAUSD YouTube channel. While anybody can listen, LAUSD students will be able to get a digital copy of each book free of charge. Students can swipe up on their devices, put in their identification codes and receive the books, which are being funded by LA Students Most In Need, a charity created to support students and families during the pandemic.

The first program airs Wednesday, with musician Alicia Keys talking about “Brown Girl” by Jacqueline Woodson. On Friday, Russell Westbrook, who plays with the Houston Rockets professional basketball team, will talk about Michelle Obama’s “Becoming”; on Sunday, model Kendall Jenner will talk about “Only Love is Real” by Brian Weiss; and on June 2, actor Noah Centineo will discuss “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coehlo.

Beutner said he long admired Oprah Winfrey’s book club, which drew millions of Americans to books they may not have otherwise read — except the “A-List Book Club” is aimed at students. Beutner went to Snap and pitched the idea, which to Sean Mills, Snap’s head of content, seemed like a no-brainer.

“It’s always been core to our editorial approach to program content that’s not just popular, but also important for our community,” he said. “We’ve produced original shows about topics such as race in America and mental health, and now we’re excited to promote reading during a time when students are most in need.”

Mills said Snap was open to working with other school districts on similar projects.

When summer school officially starts in Los Angeles, there will be some highly unusual offerings — all online. Districts teachers will be leading the classes, but some other folks will be part of it, too. While raising some $12 million for the district’s covid-19 relief effort, Beutner said he told donors that some of the money may go for unique learning opportunities, which include the following:

* James Cameron, director of “Titanic” and “Avatar,” will lead a high school class through “Voyage of the Titanic” to learn about the biology and physics of the deep ocean, underwater exploration, artifact conservation, and other things.

* Artists from Illumination — the film and animation studio behind “Despicable Me” and “The Minions” — will teach students how animated films are made and help them learn to draw and animate. They will also teach students (and anyone else who wants to tune in) how to draw a Minion, as you can see in the video below.

* The Fender Musical Instruments Corp., long famous for its guitars, is going to give up to 1,500 middle students guitars or ukuleles, and students will take lessons online.

* The NFL’s Los Angeles Chargers will take part in a class on the science, nutrition and medicine of sports.

* The Columbia Memorial Space Center will help students explore space while investigating astronomy and space technology.

(Correction: The percentage of LAUSD families with a parent who lost a job is 57 percent, not 75.)