ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The rapper hip-hop artist known as Pitbull has a huge following, a worldwide concert schedule, a multimillion-dollar recording contract and if one of these things is not like the others, he just opened his own charter school. As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, Pitbull is the latest in the long list of celebrities lending their star power to the flourishing charter school movement.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Alicia Keyes, Denzel Washington, Shakira, Oprah Winfrey - all support or sponsor charter schools.
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SANCHEZ: Now, you can add Pitbull, Armando Christian Perez, to the list.
PITBULL: They're already labeled me Mr. Education.
SANCHEZ: Ironic, considering that at the last school Pitbull attended, the principal couldn't wait to get rid of him.
PITBULL: He literally told me, I don't want you in my school. I'm going to give you your diploma. Get out of here.
SANCHEZ: Pitbull's parting words: "Thank you." His school, though, is not going to treat kids like that, he says. It's called SLAM, Sports Leadership And Management Academy, grades six through 12. The school's sports theme has a vocational bent to it, a way to hook kids for whom school is boring, says Pitbull.
PITBULL: If sports is what you love, one way or another, it's a business you can get involved with, whether you're a therapist, an attorney, a broadcaster.
SANCHEZ: SLAM opened this fall in Miami's Little Havana, not far from the unforgiving streets where Pitbull says he got his real education, a place that 17-year-old Austin Rivera also calls home. He transferred to SLAM after listening to Pitbull speak at his former school.
AUSTIN RIVERA: He came from nothing and became something huge. It shows like not a lot of people are handed everything. Like, you have to work for what you want and that's what he showed. Like, in some of his music, he'll tell you that.
SANCHEZ: Growing up poor, fatherless, tempted constantly, that was my world, says Pitbull. It's the reason he connects with kids.
PITBULL: A lot of these kids are so creative, but no one believes in them, no one motives them. I relate to them, but then I give it to them raw 'cause that's what's going to make them understand my story.
SANCHEZ: Pitbull's parents fled Cuba. But after settling in Miami, the family struggled. His father was in prison for drug dealing. At 16, Pitbull began dealing, too, and rapping. He chose the name because, he says, pitbulls are too stupid to lose. The name and the "outlaw" image stuck.
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SANCHEZ: Pitbull's breakthrough hit came in 2004, with a song titled "Culo," a vulgar word in Spanish, "booty" in the rap vernacular.
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SANCHEZ: It wasn't long before Pitbull was making millions, touring with rappers Eminem and 50 Cent. Pitbull's problems with drugs and alcohol, his womanizing, his profanity-laced lyrics, don't exactly qualify him for opening a charter school. Surprisingly, parents and educators at SLAM don't think it should disqualify him, either.
Critics say Pitbull is not the issue. It's the school itself they find objectionable.
RAQUEL REGALADO: I don't know if it's going to provide students something useful at the end of the day.
SANCHEZ: Raquel Regalado is on the Miami-Dade County school board.
REGALADO: I guess you can expect Pitbull to show up every now and then, and that's kind of cool if you're a Pitbull fan. Now, how does that translate into academic achievement? That's the difficult part of this that a lot of parents don't understand. I think it's a marketing ploy, honestly.
NINA REESE: Well, if it's a marketing ploy, the public school system is also utilized this marketing play to their advantage.
SANCHEZ: That's Nina Reese. She heads the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. She says she's not about to apologize for supporting the Pitbull's school.
REESE: Whether it's Pitbull or Meryl Streep in Rhode Island or Sandra Bullock in Louisiana, charters do benefit from celebrities because unlike public schools, they do have to market themselves to families because these are schools of choice.
SANCHEZ: As for Pitbull's music, Reese says she has no problem with that, either.
REESE: We're not endorsing his music, but welcoming him as an investor.
SANCHEZ: Besides, says Reese, everybody is entitled to their own tastes.
REESE: I admit that I'm a fan of his music.
SANCHEZ: So much so that Reese invited Pitbull to be the keynote speaker at his year's National Charter School Conference in Washington D.C.
PITBULL: I know you guys might be thinking, what is Pitbull doing here today?
I'm thinking the same thing.
SANCHEZ: There he was, the 32-year-old rapper, shaved head, in a three-piece suit and tie in front of an audience captivated not just by his rags to riches story, but by this revelation. Three of the six children he's fathered attend charter schools.
PITBULL: I'm not just a charter school advocate. I'm a charter school parent.
SANCHEZ: And that makes me one of you now, Pitbull proclaimed.
PITBULL: With that said, dismissed at 3:05, but it said Mr. Worldwide checking in, checking out. Thank you so much for having me today. Muchas gracias.
SANCHEZ: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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