Compton eighth-grader Edgar Ruelas wants to be the first in his family to attend college.
He has some help: high-powered talent agents from Beverly Hills.
For the past four years, a few dozen agents from William Morris Endeavor have been mentoring students from two Compton schools.
The centerpiece of the mentoring initiative, which is part of a wider partnership between WME and the Compton Unified School District, are regular visits that students make to the agency’s sleek, marble-clad headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard.
“At first I was pretty nervous about meeting WME. I was scared. I didn’t really know any mentors,” said Edgar, who attends Whaley Middle School. “But now I do — we are pretty close now — and they are like my friends.”
The students aren’t the only ones reaping rewards from the arrangement.
Agent Nancy Josephson, one of Edgar’s mentors, has three children of her own and says working with the 13-year-old boy has given her “enormous perspective on parenting our very privileged kids.”
“It has helped me show my kids that these qualities really matter: perseverance, motivation and a certain joyfulness,” said Josephson, whose clients include Tyra Banks, Joan Cusack and Portia de Rossi. “Edgar is a very happy little boy. It’s interesting how happy he can be without all the fancy trappings.”
The program is a unique offshoot for the talent agency, a Hollywood powerhouse whose A-list clients include Ben Affleck, Oprah Winfrey and Justin Timberlake. WME’s $2.4-billion acquisition of sports and media company IMG Worldwide last year made the agency the biggest in the world.
The schools project could be viewed as merely a good public relations campaign for WME. But there are tangible results.
At Stephen C. Foster Elementary School, the library, music room and computer lab have been refurbished and enhanced. The school’s bathrooms have been remodeled, its playground equipment upgraded. Murals have been painted, outdoor lighting fixtures installed where there were once none.
Both Foster and Whaley also have new edible gardens, paid for largely by WME client Giada De Laurentiis, the Food Network star.
In all, WME and its nonprofit foundation have spent more than $1 million on the improvements, mostly at Foster, and have tapped clients and others to donate their time and money.
But the heart of the program is the one-on-one mentoring. Every other Wednesday, agents who typically lunch at power spots like Bouchon and the Grill on the Alley give up part of their workday for meals and meetings with their charges.
“They help you with your homework, and once you are done, you can have fun,” said Whaley seventh-grader Tytis Barnett, who is mentored by agents George Freeman and Liesl Copland.
Agency leaders say the philosophy is simple: Treat the school like a Hollywood client.
“When you have an actor, you say, ‘How can we move his career along?’ We are problem solvers. But the client has to trust you and feel you have a vision of where they are going. All of those things are analogous,” said Patrick Whitesell, co-CEO of WME. “We say, ‘What are Foster’s problems?’”
Partners in progress
Other schools and districts have benefited from public-private partnerships.
Los Angeles Unified School District has over the years worked with companies and other entities that have “adopted” schools, paying for upgrades and participating in trash pickup and beautification days, among other activities.
But the mentorship program, experts say, separates WME’s efforts from others.
“It provides another ear for the students to share their lives and experiences,” said A. Dee Williams, a professor of education at Cal State L.A. “It’s important to have diverse settings, to give the students practice engaging in the real world.”
After William Morris Agency and Endeavor Talent Agency merged in 2009 to create WME, the new company’s leaders decided they wanted its nonprofit foundation to do more than simply write checks to charities. Sarah Adolphson, director of the WME Foundation, and Christian Muirhead, WME’s chief communications officer, pitched the agency bosses on a plan to focus on education and start by homing in on a single local school where the company could make a difference.
Whitesell and co-CEO Ari Emanuel were sold.
But WME’s plan never would have achieved liftoff if the agency hadn’t had a willing partner in the Compton school district and an enthusiastic principal at Foster in Jacqueline Sanderlin.
In 2009, WME conducted a series of interviews with local principals with the goal of selecting a partner school. Foster and Sanderlin weren’t on the initial list, but actor Cheryl Hines changed that. The “Curb Your Enthusiasm” star, an agency client, had gotten to know Sanderlin while participating in a celebrity reading program at another school the educator once headed, and lobbied for WME executives to meet her.
“Jackie has a way of inspiring people,” Hines said. “And she knows what to ask for, which is important. A lot of people want to help but don’t know where to begin. Jackie is good at telling you where to begin.”
Adolphson said that before WME got involved, Foster’s problems were numerous, some glaring.
“The bathrooms were disgusting,” she said. “We found out the kids were holding it because they didn’t want to use the bathroom.”
Positive role models for the students weren’t abundant either. Sanderlin said that before WME’s involvement, “some of the students didn’t have mentors … which is why this program was birthed.”
Now 42 agents are paired with 19 students at Foster and Whaley. (The agency started investing in Whaley in 2012 after Foster students involved in the mentorship initiative began matriculating there.)
Participants are selected for the program by teachers and administrators, and Sanderlin said that choices are made based on “who we know needs mentoring and who desires it.”
Every other week when class is in session, students are brought to the WME offices on a school bus. The gatherings typically include a meal on an expansive patio that offers views of Beverly Hills’ Golden Triangle and the Hollywood Hills. Then students decamp to agents’ offices for one-on-one rap sessions.
“Edgar is just a year younger than my son,” said Josephson, who at a recent mentoring session helped him with his math homework. “There is a huge emotional component to my commitment.”
Edgar talked about graduating from middle school with a high GPA, prompting Josephson to chime in encouragingly, and then he revealed his higher education aspirations.
“Edgar is speaking about attending college. That’s incredible,” said Josephson, who has degrees from Brown University and Harvard Law School. “Coming to Beverly Hills and seeing a workplace where everyone is a college graduate — I think that has an impact.”
Nearby, Copland chatted with Tytis as he waited for his turn to play a game of pool at a table set up in WME’s music department. The 12-year-old boy was shy, but Copland said that she and the seventh-grader have had moments of candor and deep connection.
She recalled once telling Tytis that “whatever it takes, you are going to college.”
“I could tell, it struck a chord,” she said. “I told him, ‘You aren’t ever allowed to go into the Army without telling me first.’”
Agents get to work
WME started work on improving the 850-student Foster in 2010. Soon, agents were painting murals, planting trees and picking up trash on campus.
But the first priority was the school’s restrooms. WME tapped Boston Celtics co-owner James Pallotta in 2010 for a $50,000 donation to renovate the bathrooms — one of which had been so filthy and dark that students refused to enter it, Sanderlin said.
The school’s computer lab was another major target. After touring Foster in 2009, agent Don Muller made a call to Dell Inc. and secured about 15 laptops for the facility. Three years later, WME-repped cloud computing firm OTOY donated 30 new computers. The agency also started a month-long summer camp (partly staffed by agents’ assistants) where students play sports, do arts and crafts and participate in other games and activities.
And there’s the library, which benefited from WME’s relationships with publishers who’ve donated books. WME also paid for the library’s furniture. Even the teacher’s lounge was upgraded: The room is now filled with old leather armchairs from William Morris Agency.
During WME’s involvement with Foster, the school’s Academic Performance Index score has improved. It increased from 722 in 2009 to 791 in 2012, although it dipped to 757 in 2013.
UCLA professor John Rogers, the director of the university’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, applauded the agency for its efforts but noted that “we can’t expect there to be a WME at every school.”
“Our public school system should be providing high-quality conditions across every neighborhood in the state,” he said. “It shouldn’t turn on whether you are lucky enough to have this relationship with a talent agency to ensure you have clean bathrooms.”
WME’s commitment to the schools is open-ended: The Compton Unified School District renews the program each year. Agency executives say they hope their model would be deployed by other businesses across Los Angeles. The company, which has offices around the world, is also expanding the program globally. In 2013, WME began working with schools in Brooklyn, London and Nashville, where it also launched a mentoring initiative.
And the agency’s schools program could lead to an expansion of a different sort — a slew of new WME agents from Compton. At least a handful of Foster and Whaley students have said that they’d like to become talent agents. Emanuel was all for it.
“Isn’t that great?” said Emanuel. “Listen, we have a lot of mail rooms. I’m looking forward to all of them figuring it out and expanding their horizons.”