When is a movie theater a classroom?

Several times a year at the historic Avalon Theatre on Connecticut Avenue NW, via its Cinema Classroom program. But most especially in the coming week, when about 1,100 students from 13 middle schools and high schools in the District will attend special morning screenings of “Selma.”

The price is $2.50 a ticket, reduced from the usual $7.50 group rate, thanks to donations from two members of the classroom program’s advisory committee, Beth Wehrle and Bob Cullen.

“It’s a chapter in our history that may not be fully understood by high school and middle school students now,” said Sarah Pokempner, manager of the classroom program. “I’m not sure they appreciate the high drama of it, and the sacrifice. I thought that was beautifully portrayed in this movie.”

As Washington’s oldest operating movie theater, opened in 1923, the Avalon’s educational mission dates back to its near-death experience in 2001, when the theater closed as a commercial enterprise. The community rallied and the Avalon reopened as a nonprofit film center in 2003, presenting first-run studio features, independent and foreign works. The wider communitarian focus led to selecting three or four films a year that might inspire young people and inviting teachers to bring their classes for free admission. This year’s line-up has included “Inocente,” a documentary about an undocumented immigrant teenage girl who is homeless. Coming soon is “Soundtrack for a Revolution,” about the civil rights movement, as told through its music.

“Selma,” serendipitous complement to the classroom program, fits right in.


The Avalon Theatre will show “Selma” to 1,100 D.C. students at special screenings. (David Montgomery/The Washington Post)

Spurring students to see the Oscar-nominated feature about the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march is a national movement now — #StudentsForSelma — that has spread to two dozen cities. It started in New York City, where a group of African American business people raised money for students in grades 7, 8 and 9 to see the film for free. The arrangements vary from city to city.

Washington’s Selma-for-students initiative — separate from the Avalon program — was launched by the March on Washington Film Festival, which has raised $86,000 toward a $125,000 goal, according to Robert Raben, founder of the festival. The money will reimburse theaters for the full cost of tickets for students in the 8th-12th grades in D.C. public and charter schools. According to the Web site, participating theaters are: the AMC Loews Georgetown 14, the AMC Magic Johnson Capital Center 12, AMC Mazza Gallerie, Regal Bowie Stadium 14 and the Regal Gallery Place Stadium 14. Students can see the film for free by showing school identification or a report card.

Free sounds like a better deal than $2.50 at the Avalon. However, at the Avalon, students younger than the 8th grade can take advantage, and the Avalon guaranteed that whole classes, or entire grades, could have space reserved in the 425-seat theater. (Group reservations are also available through the free program, as long as tickets last.)

Teachers said they leaped at the chance to expose their students as a group to the film. They want to show that engaged people can make a difference, and to encourage students to look for contemporary opportunities to apply these examples of activism and commitment.

“We are bringing the entire school” to the Avalon, including 208 6th- and 7th- graders, said Simon Rodberg, principal of the District of Columbia  International School, a new public charter school. “Part of our mission is to inspire, to raise students committed to creating a socially just world. We hope that stories of fighting for social justice will inspire our students.”

“Selma” could be woven into classes where students are studying how rules reflect and shape societies, and also how language and identity intersect, Rodberg said. The discussions may not delve into the flap over the historical accuracy of some parts of the film, such as the portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson. That will come in 9th grade history, Rodberg said.

“It’s much more around how do we apply thinking about the struggles for civil rights in the past, and how can [students] help fight for social justice today,” Rodberg said.

“I want [the students] to see that students were the main ones who were ready to go and march with Dr. King,” said Lashaunda Robinson, a 7th-grade history teacher on the Chavez Prep campus of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy. She is bringing 105 students. “Our students need to see this so they can feel encouraged to do the same.”

Chavez students with means were asked to contribute $3 for their tickets, with the extra 50 cents from each to be pooled to cover students who can’t afford it, Robinson said.

This year the Chavez students have been closely following the debate over racial profiling and police brutality in places like Ferguson, Mo., Robinson said. “Selma” will dovetail with studies and discussions of the topic. The students will look at the strategies that were adopted by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and consider what lessons can be applied to today’s struggles.

“This school…is for individuals who will someday make changes,” Robinson said, and “Selma” shows how that might be done.