"I care so much because I was one of those kids," the actress tells PEOPLE

By Gabrielle Olya
Updated August 21, 2015 01:05 PM
Credit: Andrew Toth/FilmMagic

Rosie Perez is on the front lines in the fight to bring arts education to public schools.

“What arts-integrated curricula do is what art does – it teaches in a whole different way,” the actress, 50, tells PEOPLE of her campaign with Urban Arts Partnership. “We’re trying to offer a different way of teaching so that the disengaged become engaged.”

Urban Arts Partnership brings arts education to underserved students at 100 schools across New York City and Los Angeles. The program utilizes the arts to teach history, current events and English for those who speak it as a second language.

Perez has taught in the classrooms herself over the 20-plus years since the initiative was founded, and many of the students she has met have been empowered to do great things.

One young man initially attended their after school program only for the free food – which was scarce for him – before he slowly began opening up: “He wrote this poem and made this documentary about how he was a homeless kid,” recalls the former host of The View. “No one in the school knew that. We all found out from his art piece. The piece was outstanding, and got into the Tribeca Film Festival. He has traveled the world, and now he’s writing his novel.”

Perez says many such students need an outlet to express themselves to help them overcome the stress and struggles they face on a daily basis.

“There are hundreds of kids that go under the radar because they don’t have an opportunity, they don’t have a support system,” she says. “That’s why I’m so invested.”

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The Brooklyn native also relates to these students on a personal level.

“I care so much because I was one of those kids,” she says. “I was in the child welfare system. I was part of the foster care system, and I had to deal with so many things that had nothing to do with learning and school, that by the time that I got to school, my head was exploding. If somebody made it fun for me, or someone said I was special, I would be even smarter than I already am!” she says with a laugh.

“We tell them we care,” she continues. “We tell them, ‘We see that you’re capable, we see that you’re able, we see that you’re intelligent. Let’s help each other and make this world a better place.’ ”

For more on Rosie Perez, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now