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This East Coast District Brought a Hollywood-Quality Experience to Its Students

Writing has long been an interest for Riley Brooker, but it had been fading.

Then, last school year, she had the chance to work directly with entertainment industry professionals to participate in writing and producing a short, cinema-quality film. The hands-on experience completely changed her outlook about the future, reigniting a passion for storytelling that otherwise might have faded away and perhaps altering her career trajectory.

The filmmaking experience in the Hampton City Schools, a 20,000-student district in Virginia, is the product of a partnership between the district and a company started by two TV actors that pairs entertainment industry leaders with Hampton students, teaching them how to direct, act, edit, and produce short films. Students have submitted some of the films to professional film festivals, where they’ve been shown, and they can earn real IMDb credits for their work, giving their resumes an early boost.

The program, called Hollywood to Hampton, began last school year and is a unique example of career and technical education that pairs high school learning with applied career experience at a time when more teens are questioning the value of a college degree and more companies appear to value experience over post-secondary education.

Students like Brooker who have participated say the program has exposed them to opportunities they hadn’t even considered before, and now they are considering careers in the entertainment industry. Even if the experience doesn’t lead to an entertainment career, it pushes students to embrace new skills and sharpen their writing and teamwork abilities.

“I had written a lot prior to the program, but it had been a dying passion. When I was given the opportunity to work with Next Gen, it set off a spark in me and gave me the confidence to continue with what once brought me so much joy,” said Brooker, now a high school senior. “This hasn’t just given me an outlet for my creativity, but it’s also inspired new goals for my future career, all ones that I had previously imagined impossible.”

Jacob Young (who played JR Chandler on the long-running soap opera “All My Children”) said he and Trent Garrett (who starred in the TV series “Andi Mack” and appeared in three episodes of “New Girl”) dreamed up Next Generation Storytellers, the company at the center of the collaboration with Hampton City Schools, during the pandemic when the entertainment industry, like so many others, shut down. Many actors and others in the industry were leaving Los Angeles—the industry’s longtime epicenter—as most activities moved online, allowing more flexibility in where people lived. That is how many things have remained, Young said.

“It dawned on us that this would be a great opportunity for us to connect with different parts of the country that may not have the same resources and with people who may not have the ability to move all the way to L.A. to pursue a potential career,” Young said. “We want people all across the country to understand this is something they could achieve in any market.”

Garrett is from Hampton, and his father, a local businessman, connected school district leaders with the actors, Young said. They worked together to set up the program, whose inaugural year was 2022-23.

Getting guidance from industry professionals

The Hampton school district offers two courses in conjunction with Next Generation Storytellers: Screenwriting 101, an eight-week class open to any student who wants to participate, and Movies 101, for which students must apply and be accepted.

In each class, students spend several weeks learning about the basics and intricacies of the entertainment industry, from genres of films to character archetypes. They review scripts and learn how to correctly format one of their own, then get feedback from their peers and professionals. They receive acting coaching and learn about lighting and directing a film as part of a curriculum school district leaders developed with Garrett and Young.

Hampton teachers lead the classes, but for each lesson, an industry professional with relevant experience appears via Zoom to discuss their work and answer students’ questions. Tracey Edmonds, who produced both the movie and TV series “Soul Food,” and David Janollari, who produced popular shows including “Six Feet Under,” have been among the class guests that Next Generation Storytellers has booked.

The lessons students learn go beyond the technical aspects of script writing and filmmaking.

“You wouldn’t believe it, but we’ve spent a lot of time on social-emotional skills, too, because it’s like, ‘Look, we understand these scripts are your babies,’ but there are days that aren’t going to go according to plan at all, and you have to pivot without getting upset,” said Kate Maxlow, Hampton’s director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. (Maxlow was selected as a 2024 Education Week Leader to Learn From in February for her work involving students in a district curriculum overhaul.)

Young added: “You can have a complete outline of what you want to accomplish in filming on a given day, but then all of a sudden it decides to rain, or a fire alarm keeps going off because of the fog machine you’re using. Rather than the entire day imploding, you figure out how to cut the noise in post-production and use the strobe light to improve on the original idea.”

The final products have a lasting impact

Students in Screenwriting 101 each wrote and submitted scripts that students in the Movies 101 course could decide to make into a short film. Students submitted more than 60 scripts before district curriculum leaders and film industry professionals whittled the list down to eight. From there, a panel of educators, community members, and professionals with various levels of expertise reviewed the scripts and narrowed the selection to the four films the students ultimately produced.

As part of the partnership’s inaugural year, student groups from each of Hampton’s four high schools made one of the four films. The films are fully produced, directed, and edited by students. The actors are—of course—students, too.

The final products premiered at the first Next Generation Storytellers Film Festival in late September. Young described the event as a “mini-Oscars or Golden Globes,” where students dressed up in formal attire (often their prom outfits) and attended a ceremony where they received awards, including for best picture, best original screenplay, and best actor.

This year’s festival is expected to also have entrants from students in Newport News, Va., and Charleston, S.C.

The four films Hampton students made were then submitted and screened at a professional film festival.

Once students had produced their films, curriculum leaders in Hampton crafted lessons around them to use in other high school English courses, expanding the impact of the program beyond just those who participated in the filmmaking courses, Maxlow said.

“These are stories written by students, filmed by students, acted by students, and now they’re going to go into our curriculum to now be lessons for younger students as well,” Maxlow said. “It’s going to live on in Hampton City Schools—future generations are going to use your movie in things like English class as a part of making inferences or understanding themes or etcetera.”

‘This could be a lifetime thing’

Students are reaping the benefits of the courses even after they complete their scripts and films. Many enter the classes anxious and nervous about the process but leave filled with self-confidence and pride in their work, said Jennifer Oliver, Hampton’s director of community and government relations.

One student decided to change their college plan to pursue an entertainment industry-related degree, Oliver said. Some students have been approached by talent scouts.

Antonio Pitts, a junior, said participating in the Hollywood to Hampton program “transformed” his life and “ignited a passion for storytelling.” He plans to pursue acting further in the coming years, he said.

Young said it’s testimony from students like Pitts that confirms the work he set out to do through Next Generation Storytellers is worthwhile.

“Here are these students who are seeing this isn’t a one-time thing,” Young said. “This could be a lifetime thing.”

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