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Subbing for Superman: LAUSD’s Steve Zimmer on how Hollywood could transform L.A. public schools

by Danielle Berrin

July 7, 2011 | 1:10 pm

Over the course of profiling LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer, who is the subject of this week’s cover story, I discovered a sad truth about Hollywood’s relationship to Los Angeles public schools: There really isn’t one.

Shouldn’t the epicenter of the largest creative industry in the world have the best arts education programs in the country? And what about creating a feeder program that trains thousands of students with skill-sets that could get them industry jobs, even those unglamorous but indispensable ones that form the bulk of film crews? Are there internship programs designed exclusively for public school students (and not just those who have connections to the industry)? For the hundreds of thousands of students matriculating at LAUSD schools, many of them from families of low socioeconomic backgrounds, these opportunities could change their lives.

Individuals from the industry have made their mark—for example, Philip Rosenthal, creator of the series “Everybody Loves Raymond” and his wife, Monica, fund an arts education campus on skid row called Inner-City Arts—but on the whole Hollywood seems afflicted by apathy.

“I shouldn’t be scraping together budget shards for elementary school arts programs that literally sit in the shadow of Paramount Studios or Fox,” Zimmer said when I asked him about recent budget cuts to arts programs district-wide.

“The centerpiece of the L.A. economy is entertainment so that should be made real in our public schools. I challenge the industry to help us to not have to worry about funding our arts programs year to year because it’s the most sensible investment they could make.” Zimmer also said he’s like to see a massive apprenticeship program develop so that “every union job for the next generation that comes out of the film industry goes to LAUSD graduates.”

These grand dreams are fair in a town that was built upon dreams and depends on them for its lifeblood. But how to realize dreams when a crisis permits nothing more than survival?

“What I’d really like to see is a summit, a meeting of LAUSD folks, arts advocates and entertainment industry people where we really sit down and determine how to secure arts education funding for the next decade,” Zimmer said. Funding is a start, Zimmer said, and has heightened importance during a time of crisis, but he wants more than money from Hollywood. “I’m looking at something more dynamic than that. I’d like to see a partnership. A mutually beneficial relationship.”

Every successful person in Hollywood should feel a responsibility to this, Zimmer said, but Hollywood Jews? Even more so.

“As Jews we have an obligation to our community, to the future of this city, and we have a calling – we’ve always had that calling—to Tikkun Olam. Here, it is not just healing it’s also investing. It’s the paying forward of tikkun olam so that we don’t have to heal another generation.” 

Excerpted below is my profile of Zimmer but you can read the whole thing here.

It’s been dark for almost five hours, the city has slowed, and even the 101 Freeway is sparse and quiet. Steve Zimmer has just wrapped his last appointment, but rushing home seems foolish when a rare sit-down dinner is an option. Most days Zimmer hardly notices how alone he is, because he never stops working.

On this wintry night earlier this year, the then-18-month veteran of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education is coming off a 14-hour day, a zigzag tour of schools from West Hollywood to the Elysian Valley, from parent meetings on the Westside to policy meetings downtown, home to Hollywood to walk his blind Chihuahua-pug mix and is about to wind down — finally — with dinner and a very necessary nightcap in Echo Park. By this point, Zimmer is hungry, tired and melancholy, so once he’s decided upon the kitschy French bistro Taix on Sunset Boulvard, he pops in a Leonard Cohen CD and sinks into the driver’s seat of his LAUSD-owned Prius.

Hallelujah…

“So you know that everybody covers ‘Hallelujah,’ but this version, this live version is just … unbelievable,” he says. “The instrumentation is very different than his studio albums. I didn’t realize how Jewish-influenced his music was until I heard this. It almost has a klezmer-y feel.”

Zimmer moves to another favorite, Beck, whose album “Sea Change” he calls “the breakup album.” “It rips your heart out,” he says, explaining that he listened to it on loop for months after a six-year relationship ended recently. At 41, he has never married, but he says his last breakup felt like a divorce.

“I’ve been good — or at least passable — at a lot of things in my life,” Zimmer tells me. “I haven’t been as good at relationships. An artist can’t help being an artist — in the same sense that I can’t help what I do. It’s a focus thing.

“I don’t know how to do things any other way. It’s a complicated balancing act to have two passions. It takes a very, very special person to be willing to be part of a balancing act.”

 

Two Hollywood stars who do care about public education—Brian Austin Greene and Megan Fox—created the following PSA to bring attention to the impact of budget cuts on LAUSD students:

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Danielle Berrin writes the Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile dubbed her...

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