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Miami at the heart of teacher-focused TV special

The Mater Academy students sat at their desks with mouths agape, their attention fixed on Mr. Worldwide.

Yet, it was Armando Christian Pérez who couldn’t believe his eyes.

Pérez, known to millions as Pitbull, had come to Hialeah Gardens to inspire teens with a story about the young Miami Coral Park drama teacher who jump-started his career by sending him to work as an extra on a major-label hip-hop video shoot. The only thing Hope Martinez asked in return was that he thank her when he made it big and received awards.

“The reason I’m in music today is because she believed in me,” Pérez said.

And suddenly, there was Martinez in the classroom.

His eyes welled. They embraced. His voice choked.

“This is who changed my life,” he said.

The intimate moment from Pitbull’s 2011 visit to Mater Academy Charter Middle/High School — which included a concert in the school’s temporarily made-over gym — is captured in the Real Change Project: Artists for Education. The Miami-centric, hour-long special runs Tuesday night on CBS.

Dreamed up about six years ago by a Miami Beach sales executive and produced in a Midtown studio, the program focuses on the special connection teachers can forge with students. It aims to turn celebrities’ music and passion for teaching into a vehicle for charity.

“I wanted to make great TV, but I also wanted to inspire people,” said Liam Murphy, CEO of Real Change Productions and creator of Artists for Education. “My goal is not the ratings.”

The hopeful beneficiary: Adopt-A-Classroom, based in the Design District and created in 1998 by a Miami Beach mergers and acquisitions attorney. The organization connects donors and teachers and funnels 100 percent of donations directly into classrooms where teachers choose how the money is spent.

Murphy, 35, said he began pursuing Artists for Education about six years ago, around the time he moved from New York to Miami Beach.

His parents were high school teachers, and he wanted to promote the profession through a television event that included an outlet for those who were inspired.

Murphy then discovered Adopt-A-Classroom. He met with founder James Rosenberg, who started the nonprofit 15 years ago after an experience mentoring disabled pre-K students in a classroom that he said “had nothing.” Rosenberg drew up the company’s logistics on the back of a napkin at the Van Dyke Café on Lincoln Road and began running its operations out of his South Beach apartment.

He started by adopting two schools, Van E. Blanton Elementary and Phillis Wheatley Middle School. Today, Adopt-A-Classroom says it has raised $18.2 million, adopted 88,000 classrooms and helped 3.8 million students.

That includes all of Mater Academy and Damon Gopie’s art class, which was adopted by Pitbull.

“As far as an art class goes here in Florida or anywhere here in the country, they cut a lot of our budget,” Gopie said. “We have to try to get money from any way possible. Any little bit helps.”

Studies by Adopt-A-Classroom and the National School Supply and Equipment Association say teachers may spend up to $1,000 out of pocket in their classrooms due to underfunding.

“Our goal is to adopt every single classroom in the United States,” said Murphy, who also wants to build schools around the world with Pencils of Promise

Murphy said it took him more than three years, but his first score was big: impresario Quincy Jones. Then Pitbull joined in. Then Justin Bieber.

The final product includes a half-dozen other musicians and visits to a Nashville middle school where Miley Cyrus donates a piano, and to Murphy’s alma mater, Long Beach High School, which was flooded so badly by Hurricane Sandy, there was beach sand in the hallways.

Rosenberg, who with the help of Office Depot donated school supplies and tablets to the New York high school, said he had a “healthy amount of skepticism” about the project at first. But he said the final product is something special, particularly in a climate in which much publicity about education deals with its shortcomings.

“If you really reflect and try to think, ‘When was the last time I heard, read or saw something incredibly positive about something in school?’ you’d be pretty hard-pressed to recall anything,” he said.

Real Change, he said, is about “the positive things that are happening despite those challenges.”

Murphy said the project already feels like a success, and he’s working on a second production.

To make that happen, he’ll need more stories like the one about Pitbull and Martinez, who was 20 during her one and only year as a teacher during the mid-1990s. Martinez, who now lives in California and works with Roots and Shoots, said she keeps in touch with her former student. She’s most proud that he continues to make classroom visits in Miami, including to her own mother’s.

“How can a teacher make a difference to a student?” Pitbull says on-screen, with just a touch of his signature bravado. “Look at me.”